WASHINGTON – Farm bills attract many critics. When it comes time to vote, however, it’s hard to say no.
So it was on Wednesday when 100 Republicans abandoned President Bush as the House overwhelmingly passed the latest five-year farm bill, a $290 billion measure sent to the Senate with more than enough supporters to override his promised veto.
The president said the legislation was fiscally irresponsible and gives away too much money to wealthy farmers. Yet his criticism rang hollow as lawmakers from both parties voted for increased crop subsidies, food stamps for the poor and other goodies that will help their districts in an election year. The final vote was 318-106.
Bush took a stronger stand this time than he did when Congress wrote the last farm bill in 2002. He never liked that bill, but signed it anyway with lukewarm praise as he prepared to run for re-election.
Supporters of the new bill were elated after the vote, which was more favorable than they expected.
“It is very sweet,” said Connecticut Rep. Rosa DeLauro, a Democrat who pushed for more nutrition money in the bill.
About two-thirds of the bill would pay for nutrition programs such as food stamps and emergency food aid for the needy. An additional $40 billion is for farm subsidies while almost $30 billion would go to farmers to idle their land and to other environmental programs.
The Senate was expected to vote on the bill Thursday. Rejecting a veto by Bush would be even easier in the Senate because farm states have greater representation than they do in the House. Congress has only overridden one veto, on a water projects bill, during Bush’s two terms.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said the measure “will drastically increase nutrition initiatives that will help 38 million American families put healthy food on their table.”
She made it clear she would have preferred smaller farm subsidies, but deferred to some Democratic colleagues looking ahead to the fall campaign.
Only 91 Republicans voted against the bill one day after the party lost its third straight special election this year for filling House vacancies. All three districts — one each in Illinois, Louisiana and Mississippi — include rural farm areas and now have Democrats in seats long held by Republicans.
Some Republicans criticized the mostly bipartisan and popular bill because a few home-state pet causes, including tax breaks for Kentucky racehorse owners and additional aid for salmon fishermen in the Pacific Northwest.
“This bill has been under consideration for a long, long time, and yet still we have earmarks that have been ‘air dropped’ into the legislation,” complained Rep. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz.
Agriculture Secretary Ed Schafer renewed Bush’s veto threat after the vote. “I encourage members of Congress on both sides of the aisle to support his stand for fiscal discipline and the best interests of America’s farmers and ranchers,” Schafer said.
The bill also would:
—Boost nutrition programs, including food stamps and emergency domestic food aid, by more than $10 billion over 10 years. It would expand a program to provide fresh fruits and vegetables to schoolchildren.
—Increase subsidies for certain crops, including fruits and vegetables excluded from previous farm bills.
—Extend dairy programs.
—Increase loan rates for sugar producers.
—Urge the government to buy surplus sugar and sell it to ethanol producers for use in a mixture with corn.
—Cut a per-gallon ethanol tax credit for refiners from 51 cents to 45 cents. The credit supports the blending of fuel with the corn-based additive. More money would go to cellulosic ethanol, made from plant matter.
—Require that meats and other fresh foods carry labels with their country of origin.
—Stop allowing farmers to collect subsidies for multiple farm businesses.
—Reopen a major discrimination case against the Agriculture Department. Thousands of black farmers who missed a deadline would get a chance to file claims alleging they were denied loans or other subsidies.
—Pay farmers for weather-related farm losses from a new $3.8 billion disaster relief fund.
Congressional negotiators tried for weeks to come closer to the White House on the amount of money paid to wealthy farmers — one of the chief sticking points with the administration.
The legislation would make small cuts to direct payments, which are distributed to some farmers no matter how much they grow. The farm bill also would eliminate some federal payments to individuals with more than $750,000 in annual farm income — or married farmers who make more than $1.5 million.
Individuals who make more than $500,000 or couples who make more than $1 million jointly in nonfarm income also would not be eligible for subsidies.
Under current law, there is no income limit for farmers, and married couples who make less than one-fourth of their income from farming will not receive subsidies if their joint income exceeds $5 million.
The administration originally proposed a cap for those who make more than $200,000 in annual gross income, but later indicated it could accept a limit of $500,000. Previously, negotiators were considering a $950,000 income cap on farm income.
The Senate Agriculture Committee put the bill’s final cost at $290 billion over five years, based on figures compiled this week by congressional budget experts. The bill had been estimated at around $300 billion.
Stay Connected with the Daily Roundup.
Sign up for our newsletter and get the best of the Beacon delivered every day to your inbox.