Dem leaders shield farm bill / Effort by urban lawmakers to curb subsidies defeated
Carolyn Lochhead, Chronicle Washington Bureau
July 27, 2007
Washington -- House Democratic leaders surgically picked apart opposition from urban lawmakers to continued crop subsidies, beating back efforts by environmental and food advocates to change a mammoth five-year farm bill.
Bay Area activists focused enormous energy on the farm bill this year, arguing that the five-year, $256 billion legislation has a profound effect on the food Americans eat and the environment they live in. They argued that crop subsidies skew food production, separating consumers from farmers, and encouraging farm industrialization, obesity and environmental damage.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-San Francisco, put pressure on Democrats to support the farm bill as a way to help newly elected rural colleagues and preserve the new Democratic majority. A vote was postponed until today amid the deal making.
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Bay Area Democrats are pivotal to the bill's passage, after Republican support melted away when House leaders introduced a tax increase on U.S. subsidiaries of foreign corporations to help pay for the legislation.
Most support the bill, including Reps. Ellen Tauscher of Walnut Creek, Mike Thompson of St. Helena, Jerry McNerney of Pleasanton and Tom Lantos of San Mateo.
"This farm bill represents a change in direction from previous farm policy," Thompson said. "It gives specialty crops and organic crops a seat at the table, while at the same time preserving the importance of conventional agriculture across the country."
Rep. Lynn Woolsey, D-Petaluma, whose district has a number of dairy farms, said she was undecided on final passage.
Rep. Pete Stark, D-Fremont, opposes crop subsidies and will vote no. Rep. Barbara Lee, D-Oakland, also opposes the bill on the grounds that it shortchanges nutrition programs for the poor.
But House leaders won critical support from the Congressional Black Caucus by adding money for a lawsuit settlement for black farmers. Overseas nutrition programs for poor children also got a boost, drawing support from Lantos and other urban liberals.
Pelosi's office "has been hearing nonstop about the disappointment with her and her leadership, but I think bigger politics are in play here," said Kari Hamerschlag, policy director of the California Coalition for Food and Farming, a Watsonville group that wants to shift subsidies to support local food systems, small farmers and organic agriculture.
Democrats "kind of wrapped a noose around their neck" by refusing to pare crop subsidies, forcing them to turn to a tax increase to finance the bill, Hamerschlag said. But Democratic aides argued that it would be better to hit foreign corporations than cut aid to U.S. farmers.
Rep. Dennis Cordoza, D-Atwater (Merced County), ripped Republicans for supporting loopholes for foreign tax cheats.
"This new Democratic Congress will not abandon our farm community," he said. "This is a once-in-a-lifetime bill that will meet our country's needs. Every major group -- the commodities, the specialty crops, the nutrition groups, the conservationists and others -- support this bill."
The House defeated an alternative by Rep. Ron Kind, D-Wis., that would have slashed crop subsidies and put much more money into nutrition and environmental programs, as well as provided a much bigger boost for fruit and vegetable research and marketing programs of keen interest to California farmers.
Agriculture Department figures released by Kind's office showed that every California member of Congress would do better under his measure, except for two: Rep. Wally Herger of Marysville (Yuba County), a Republican whose sprawling Northern California district received a third of a billion dollars in mainly rice subsidies from 2003 to 2005; and Rep. Jim Costa of Hanford (Kings County), who represents cotton farmers in Fresno who received most of the nearly quarter of a billion dollars that went to his district.
Although Pelosi characterized the bill as reform, outside analysts say it does not really change farm programs and even increases support for subsidized crops. Agriculture Secretary Michael Johanns issued a veto threat, saying the bill relies on budget gimmicks and tax increases while doing little to change crop subsidies.
California is the nation's largest farm state but has historically played little role in farm policy because its main crops -- fruits, nuts and vegetables -- do not receive direct subsidies. In a move designed to attract the powerful California delegation, the House Agriculture Committee included $1.6 billion in new money for research, disease and marketing programs for specialty crops and organic farming.
Environmental Defense and Oxfam America, which works with farmers in poor countries who are hurt by U.S. subsidies, issued polls this week showing that large majorities of Californians and Americans want the programs changed.
Oxfam opposed the bill's cotton subsidies that drive down the prices poor farmers in West Africa receive for their cotton, and the sugar tariffs that keep sugar cane from poor countries out of the U.S. market. Several major U.S. candymakers, including Fannie May and Hershey Foods, have moved their U.S. plants to Canada and Mexico to avoid the tariffs.
"We're perplexed by how they can characterize what they've generated as real reform," said Jim Lyons, vice president of policy for Oxfam America. "It's more regressive than progressive."
Food and Water Watch, another advocacy group, issued a report this week arguing that subsidized corn and other feed grains have sped the move in the livestock industry away from grass pastures and diversified hog, poultry and dairy farms to giant animal feedlots -- which they call factory farms -- that discharge millions of gallons of manure and introduce large quantities of antibiotics and hormones into the meat supply.
Government payments encourage this trend by lowering the cost of subsidized corn and soybeans -- half of which now go to animal feed, the report said, putting farmers who graze their cattle at a competitive disadvantage.
Hamerschlag said Pelosi could have pushed for much broader reforms. "Her calculation was that she needed to support a status quo farm bill to get those guys elected, but you can push for much more reform and still leave intact, more or less, the system, and at the same time still free up significant resources for other programs," Hamerschlag said. "She wouldn't have disappointed so many people in her base, and she could have still protected freshmen."
But one of those freshmen, McNerney, who unseated Republican Richard Pombo last year in the East Bay district that includes parts of Contra Costa, Santa Clara, Alameda and San Joaquin counties, said he supported the leadership and would vote for the bill.
McNerney's "top priority in this year's farm bill was support for specialty crops like the grapes, almonds and asparagus grown in San Joaquin County," his spokesman said. "After working hard to ensure specialty crop assistance made it into the bill, he has every intention of supporting the legislation so long as those provisions remain."
Carolyn Lochhead was the Washington correspondent for the San Francisco Chronicle, where she covered national politics and policy for 27 years. She grew up in Paso Robles (San Luis Obispo County) and graduated from UC Berkeley cum laude in rhetoric and economics. She has a masters of journalism degree from Columbia University. Twitter: @carolynlochhead