Congress approves farm bill
$100 billion measure includes subsidies, conservation
By Elizabeth Becker
New York Times News Service
WASHINGTON -- Senate and House members agreed Friday on a six-year, more than $100 billion farm bill that will raise subsidy payments to the country's biggest grain and cotton farmers, a nearly complete reversal of Congress' attempt six years ago to wean farmers of all subsidies.
At the same time, the measure finances some of the most significant conservation and environmental programs in recent years, with $17 billion dedicated to preserve farmland, save wetlands and improve water quality and soil conservation on working farms.
It is also one of the major pieces of social welfare legislation before Congress this year, increasing food stamps for working U.S. families and children and restoring the right of legal immigrants to receive them.
Months of election-year jockeying produced a bill that seeks to satisfy every region and segment of the country. Lawmakers from farm states in the Midwest and South won the largest subsidies for cotton, rice, wheat, corn and soybeans. Legislators from the Northeast won a new $1.3 billion national program to replace the dairy compact. The conservation programs will help densely populated states hoping to control urban sprawl. And for cities and rural areas, the increase in the food stamps and nutrition program will begin to redress the losses from the 1996 welfare overhaul that has led to overburdened private soup kitchens and food pantries.
"The winners in this bill are the American farmers," said Rep. Larry Combest, R-Texas, who headed the conference committee of House and Senate members.
The measure represents the taxpayers' agreement to subsidize farmers' income at a time when grain and cotton prices are at record lows and production is at a record high.
Lawmakers did not say how much of the $100 billion-plus would go for subsidies, but it is believed to be the vast majority of the money.
Spurred by a Web site that revealed how hundreds of farmers and absentee landlords received millions of dollars in subsidy payments since the last farm bill, the Senate version included a limit of $275,000 per farmer. But negotiators over the past month dropped that limit. The compromise includes a limit of $360,000 but with enough exceptions to make it a symbolic compromise.
From the consumer's point of view, the increase will have little effect on the price at the supermarket. The farmer receives about 20 cents of every dollar spent for groceries; the rest goes mostly to the grain companies and other middlemen.
Small farmers and their advocates were disappointed with the compromise measure, saying that the Senate backed down too easily on payment limits and reducing by $5 billion the funding for conservation programs that reach small farmers frozen out of other programs.
Some 10 percent of the nation's farmers receive the lion's share of subsidy payments in a formula that remains basically unchanged in the compromise.
"Why did they bother doing a Senate bill?" said Ken Cook, of the Environmental Working Group that created the Web site with farm payments. "But the issues of payment limits and fairness and better conservation programs will not go away."
While the conservation funding is less than the Senate version, lawmakers said it represents an 80 percent increase in current financing and is the largest conservation measure to pass Congress in years.