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Despite a loss, progress seen on farm subsidy reform

Updated: Jan 5, 2022

"House Agriculture Committee Chairman Colin Peterson, D-Minn., told Farm Journal Forum on Monday that Pelosi 'has taken a lot of flak, to say the least,' for pushing farm subsidies through the House. 'She got the heck beat out of her by the San Francisco paper and others around the country, but she stood up to it, and I think she understands ... what people are up to,' Peterson, a staunch subsidy supporter, said."

Carolyn Lochhead, Chronicle Washington Bureau

Dec. 12, 2007

The Senate rejected an overhaul of farm subsidies Tuesday, but the 37-58 vote - and support for radical reform from California Democrats Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer - represents one of the biggest moves against crop subsidies in the 75-year history of farm programs.

More key votes to whittle away at the subsidies are expected, starting Wednesday.

Boxer and Feinstein wavered for months over whether to side with a new farm support and public health movement, born in the Bay Area, that seeks to promote healthier food and more conservation in this year's $288 billion farm program renewal. The bill will set U.S. food policy for the next five years and could reach final passage this week.

The reform movement has focused unprecedented public scrutiny on the Depression-era programs that today grant billions of dollars to a tiny number of large farms growing a handful of crops but, critics say, wreak havoc elsewhere, from the American diet to the rural landscape to impoverished African cotton farmers, all at enormous taxpayer cost.

The amendment by Sens. Richard Lugar, R-Ind., and Frank Lautenberg, D-N.J., known as the FRESH Act, would have replaced crop subsidies for corn, cotton, rice, wheat and soybeans, along with a handful of other crops such as sugar and dairy, with free insurance for all farmers. The $6 billion savings would have been diverted to nutrition, conservation and environmental programs, and $4 billion still would have been trimmed from overall spending.

"I think it's a shot across the bow that the status quo on farm subsidies is nearing its end," said Scott Faber, a former environmental lobbyist now with the Grocery Manufacturers Association. "By voting for reform, Sens. Boxer and Feinstein have signaled that farm subsidies need to be dramatically overhauled."

Even though the amendment failed, it drew surprising support from an influential and unusual group of liberals and conservatives. That could spell trouble for the overall farm bill when it reaches negotiations with the House next month.

Senate Terrorism, Technology and Homeland Security subcommittee Chair Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Cailf., questions a witness during the subcommittee's hearing on the legal right of Guantanamo detainees, Tuesday, Dec. 11, 2007, on Capitol Hill in Washington. (AP Photos/Susan Walsh)

The House passed its version of the bill last summer, when Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-San Francisco, drew tremendous fire for hailing that legislation as reform, even though it increased crop subsidies and would permit farm couples earning $2 million a year after expenses to receive federal payments. President Bush has issued veto threats on both bills.

Boxer said she voted for the amendment "because it will give all of our farmers the safety net of revenue insurance, and it directs greatly needed funds toward nutrition, conservation and clean energy production."

Feinstein pointed to an analysis by the U.S. Department of Agriculture's chief economist that found a radical overhaul of farm programs would greatly benefit California farmers, 91 percent of whom are ineligible for current crop subsidies because they grow fruits, nuts or vegetables. By replacing such programs with free insurance, Feinstein said the FRESH Act "would be a true safety net for California farmers."

Even though the proposal failed, "I believe that the concepts included in the amendment are important concepts that are worthy of further examination," Feinstein said.

Boxer and Feinstein traditionally have supported the state's heavily subsidized cotton and rice growers and have opposed moves that threatened payments to them.

Second-ranking Senate Democrat Dick Durbin of Illinois, Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts and Robert Menendez of New Jersey all voted yes, along with GOP leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, second-ranking Republican Jon Kyl of Arizona, and Jim DeMint of South Carolina.

"A bunch of very interesting senators decided fundamental reform is a good idea," said Rick Swartz, a coordinator of the left-right coalition of anti-poverty, environmental, taxpayer, development, minority farmer and public health groups opposing the farm bill. "These are very serious people in real leadership positions."

Republican presidential candidate John McCain was a sponsor of the overhaul, but he was not present to vote. All the Democratic presidential candidates in the Senate - Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, Chris Dodd and Joe Biden - missed the vote. The campaign in Iowa, the heart of subsidized corn country, puts candidates in both parties in an uncomfortable spot.

Lugar, who farms himself and sees crops subsidies hastening consolidation of large farms, said "it is incredible to me ... that we would consider a bill which enriches so few individuals" given other pressing needs.

Boxer and Feinstein were under pressure from California's giant fresh produce industry to vote against the FRESH Act. California's farm output dwarfs that of other states traditionally considered farm country, but these growers have never received direct crop subsidies. This year, commodity interests split California growers from the reform coalition by including in the farm bill $2.2 billion in first-ever money for research and marketing of fresh produce.

The industry opposed dumping the current system because doing so also would have freed Midwestern and Southern farmers of the traditional subsidized commodities to plant fresh fruits and vegetables.

Western Growers, which represents fresh fruit and vegetable farmers, contends that it would be unfair to allow subsidized cotton and other farmers to compete with California's unsubsidized fruit and vegetable growers.

Produce industry representatives believe Boxer and Feinstein might have voted against reform had the vote been close.

More tests lie ahead. The biggest expected today would limit payments to $250,000 a year to any farm. Another amendment would limit subsidies to farmers earning less than $750,000 a year. Even the staunchest supporters of crop subsidies are worried that widespread publicity about huge farming operations getting millions of dollars of subsidies is jeopardizing support for farm programs.

House Agriculture Committee Chairman Colin Peterson, D-Minn., told Farm Journal Forum on Monday that Pelosi "has taken a lot of flak, to say the least," for pushing farm subsidies through the House. "She got the heck beat out of her by the San Francisco paper and others around the country, but she stood up to it, and I think she understands ... what people are up to," Peterson, a staunch subsidy supporter, said.

Pelosi's role on the farm bill will be critical heading into next months' negotiations with the Senate to produce a final bill. Peterson said he believes Pelosi was won over to farm programs during a visit to his district for an annual Farm Fest.

"She just had a great time, and her staff did, and they bonded with the farmers and she was eating pork chops on a stick and riding around in an ethanol four-wheeler," Peterson said. "And that had a lot to do with her being as engaged and helpful as she was in finally getting the bill through."

Peterson said debate over payment limits has him "about ready to tear my hair out," but that he now believes some limits on subsidies are inevitable. "We're just going to keep getting the hell beat out of us," he said. "If we can have farm payments go to people who actually farm, that would be a good start."

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

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