Farm Bill Update: Harvesting More Cash
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) has turned up the pressure on Senate Democrats to support the House version of a $290 billion, 5-year farm bill, reports Dan Morgan, co-author of a nine-part Post series in 2006 exposing waste in agricultural subsidies.
At a meeting Wednesday night, an angry Pelosi berated Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.) for trying to tack onto the farm bill an array of tax measures to fund new spending, including disaster aid for Montana wheat growers and cattle ranchers. Tucked into the package pushed by Baucus is a $489 million capital gains depreciation tax break for thoroughbred horse breeders, such as those in the home state of Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.).
Pelosi scolded Baucus for repeatedly foisting tax breaks for special interests onto key bills, mentioning specifically his earlier support for a $300 million provision sought by coal interests and Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W. Va.).
"By the end of it, Baucus was stuttering," said a smiling House Agriculture Committee Chairman Collin Peterson (D-Minn.). A Baucus aide said the senator "has a long history of crafting legislation that can get votes and be signed into law. Sometimes that makes people mad."
Pelosi's irritation was directed at Baucus' unyielding position on taxes, now standing in the way of a farm bill that would provide benefits for key Democratic constituencies while also strengthening the party's frayed ties with rural America.
The White House has repeatedly warned that President Bush would veto a bill containing new taxes. House Republicans say they they will vote to sustain such a veto. Peterson bluntly blamed the Senate tax proposals for "mucking up the farm bill."
After Wednesday night's high-level meeting involving Pelosi, Peterson moved quickly on Thursday to put forward a bipartisan House farm bill proposal that avoids new taxes and includes key provisions favored by Pelosi.
These include a $9 billion increase for food stamps and nutrition programs; a $4 billion increase for conservation programs and $1.3 billion more for programs benefiting fruit and vegetable growers not eligible for traditional farm subsidies. In a nod to consumer groups, the bill also contains long-sought provisions requiring country-of-origin labeling of imported meat.
But farmers, now enjoying record prices and profits, would also be big winners. Benefits included in the expiring 2002 farm bill--broadly criticized by fiscal conservatives as unduly generous--would be kept largely intact. The House proposal, for example, guarantees farmers $52 billion in automatic payments over the next 10 years even if prices stay high. As the 2006 Post series showed, farmers receive these payments even if they are not growing crops.
Farm state lawmakers have balked at stopping the twice-yearly checks even though they were supposed to phase out after 2002.
The newly-released House plan would scale back windfall profits in the private crop insurance industry, another focus of the Post series. Without a change, Peterson said, companies in some states would get a 226 percent increase in government payments. "We believe this is not a defensible policy going forward," he said.
But Rep. Jerry Moran (R-Kan.), a senior Agriculture Committee member, said he opposed the crop insurance changes. His western Kansas farmers depend heavily on the federally-subsidized program to ease the effects of bad weather in the western Great Plains.
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