TOPICS > Politics

Congress Passes $290B Farm Bill Despite White House Opposition

May 15, 2008 at 6:35 PM EDT
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Amid global concerns over food prices, the Senate approved a $290 billion dollar farm bill Thursday with enough support to overcome a threatened presidential veto. A reporter outlines facets of the bill and its implications for U.S. food and agriculture policy.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: Now, the new farm bill expected to become law. The legislation shapes much of the country’s agricultural and food policies. But with a five-year price tag of $290 billion, the bill has much more in it.

More than 65 percent of the money — about $200 billion — goes for food stamps and emergency food aid. Less than 1 percent goes toward foreign food aid.

But the money it provides for farmers and agribusiness remain the subject of debate. More than $40 billion goes toward crop subsidies, such as rice, cotton, corn, soybeans and wheat.

And it provides direct payments to farmers. Currently, there are no real income limits on those payments. The legislation would change that.

Individuals making more than $750,000 in farm income could not receive payments, and anyone earning more than $500,000 in non-farm income could not collect subsidies.

To help us understand more, we turn to Catharine Richert. She’s covering the story for Congressional Quarterly.

It’s good to have you with us. Catharine, why do they call it a farm bill, though? Is this a misnomer, when most the money, two-thirds of the money, goes for nutrition, food aid, food stamps?

CATHARINE RICHERT, Congressional Quarterly: Well, it’s a very good question. When the bill was initially written back in the Depression era, in 1933, it really was a farm bill. It was full of subsidies basically to boost our small farmers in America and keep the food supply going.

Over the years, lawmakers have seen it as a vehicle to include all kinds of new programs, food stamps being one of them. Now we see land conservation and definitely alternative energy incentives in the bill, as well.

Today, they’re calling it the Food, and Conservation, Nutrition Act, so it has a much broader title today.

Rare show of bipartisanship

Catharine Richert
Congressional Quarterly
I think in the House a lot of Republicans are up for re-election this year and they were considering their constituents' needs first.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Now, it passed overwhelmingly, bipartisan support, both parties, and yet it took, what, a year-and-a-half to hammer this out. The president is threatening a veto. Why was it so hard to work this out?

CATHARINE RICHERT: Well, part of the reason is because the bill is just so big. There are so many programs included in the bill that you have to cater to all types of lawmakers who have different priorities. So there's a lot of negotiating going on.

Secondly, their budget was very tight this year, so they had very little money to work with and lots of things to pay for.

JUDY WOODRUFF: The president started out saying he would like to see subsidies cut for those farmers earning, what, over $200,000 a year. They left the limit much higher than that, as we just said, $750,000. Why weren't they able to get that number lower?

CATHARINE RICHERT: Well, I think that a lot of the lawmakers who are working on the bill feared that this would really hurt farmers in their states. So they were able to bring those numbers down closer to what the president wanted, but ultimately wanted to make sure that farmers were still reaping the benefits of the farm bill.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But there were a number of Republicans who clearly were able to disagree with the president, vote against the president. Why is that? Why were they willing to go against the leader of their party?

CATHARINE RICHERT: Well, I think in the House a lot of Republicans are up for re-election this year and they were considering their constituents' needs first. Especially when you're from a rural district, it's very important to make sure you've got something you go home and campaign on.

In the Senate, Saxby Chambliss, for example, the ranking member on the Senate Agriculture Committee, has always been a huge fan of farming programs...

JUDY WOODRUFF: From Georgia.

CATHARINE RICHERT: ... from Georgia, yes. He has peanut farmers and cotton farmers there. And he wanted to make sure they were taken care of.

Allocation remains big issue

Catharine Richert
Congressional Quarterly
Most of the support for subsidies are farmers in the Midwest and farmers in the South, particularly farmers in the South who grow rice and cotton, because the cost of production is much higher than, say, growing corn or soybeans.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, ultimately, after all this wrangling, did price support, subsidies, come down much below where they are right now?

CATHARINE RICHERT: Well, it depends on who you ask. Some would say that this is a status quo bill and that there are plenty of loopholes that farmers can get through to make sure that they're still getting a lot of subsidies.

But talking to Senator Harkin today -- he's the chairman of the Ag Committee -- Senator Kent Conrad from North Dakota, who is a big player, they believe that this bill really will prevent people who should not be getting farm subsidies from getting government dollars.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Who is on the side of keeping the subsidies where they are? Because farmers make up such a small percentage of the population in this country.

CATHARINE RICHERT: Absolutely. Most of the support for subsidies are farmers in the Midwest and farmers in the South, particularly farmers in the South who grow rice and cotton, because the cost of production is much higher than, say, growing corn or soybeans. So they rely on those subsidies even more to keep their big, expensive farming operations going.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And yet, as we say, they are such a smaller and smaller part of the population. Where do they get the political muscle to pull this off?

CATHARINE RICHERT: Well, the farm lobby in Washington, D.C., is big and is entrenched here. So I think that it's a combination of the classic Washington lobby and also just being so scattered across different parts of states and all around the country. That adds up to, you know, pretty strong constituency.

Benefits try to meet diverse needs

Catharine Richert
Congressional Quarterly
I think probably the most interesting debate happened around a program called McGovern-Dole program. And this is essentially a school lunch program for hungry children in foreign countries.

JUDY WOODRUFF: As you mentioned, there's money in there for conservation, what is it, $27 billion. Much disagreement about that?

CATHARINE RICHERT: Well, give and take, some disagreement. Overall, I believe conservationists and environmental groups are very happy with that number, but there were some cuts to a few programs that they weren't so happy about.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And then the bulk of the money, as we said, the $200 billion lion's share goes for food stamps, nutrition programs, emergency food aid. Was that something that they fought over to any great degree?

CATHARINE RICHERT: Well, not so much the international food aid supports, but certainly nutrition supports that would be used here in the United States.

There are so many urban members in Congress now who have constituents on food stamps. Almost every child eats a school lunch subsidized by USDA. So there was a big push to increase funding for all of those programs, and ultimately they did. They came out with $10.3 billion in new funding for those programs.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And who was opposed to doing that?

CATHARINE RICHERT: I don't think anyone was exactly opposed to doing it. I'm sure -- I know, for example, there were a few Midwestern lawmakers who were skeptical that, you know, if there's so much -- if we can spend that much more money, why aren't we giving it to farmers, as well, who create the food that these people will ultimately eat?

JUDY WOODRUFF: You mentioned the international food aid. What is it, just 1 percent of the whole bill?

CATHARINE RICHERT: It's a small portion.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And there was some debate about that.

CATHARINE RICHERT: Yes, I think probably the most interesting debate happened around a program called McGovern-Dole program. And this is essentially a school lunch program for hungry children in foreign countries.

In the House, when they passed their bill, it got about $800 million, but ultimately that was pared down to $84 million. So there were some upset people there.

Veto likely

Catharine Richert
Congressional Quarterly
No one has heard otherwise that he's going to veto the farm bill. And then it goes back to the House and back to the Senate, where they will almost certainly override that veto.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Catharine Richert, when you look at this overall, who were the winners and who were the losers?

CATHARINE RICHERT: Well, I think that there's been a lot of talk about everyone hates this bill just as much as everyone else, because it was such a difficult process to get through. Everyone got a little bit of their priorities, but not all of them.

I would say nutrition advocates probably got a pretty good deal, given the budget restraints. There's also a disaster fund for farmers who lose crops to flood and fire and that sort of thing. That's $3.8 billion. And looking at where the funding ended up, that's a pretty big chunk of money for farmers who might need it if they lose crops.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And to clarify, that's separate from the crop insurance, is that right?

CATHARINE RICHERT: Yes, that is separate from the crop insurance.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But it's called emergency crop support? What about the -- I mean, President Bush is -- there's no reason to believe he's not going to veto this, is that right?

CATHARINE RICHERT: Yes.

JUDY WOODRUFF: He sent a very clear signal all along. And so the expectation is, what, it goes to his desk?

CATHARINE RICHERT: Well, it's going to go to his desk this week. No one has heard otherwise that he's going to veto the farm bill. And then it goes back to the House and back to the Senate, where they will almost certainly override that veto.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And it will go into effect...

CATHARINE RICHERT: As soon as the bill is over, it will go into effect.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And other than -- I mean, farming interests are obviously thrilled about this. There are those who argued, though, that there should have been a lot less money that had gone into this. The president wanted a much smaller bill.

CATHARINE RICHERT: Yes, and I think that they're -- it's less money, but also where we spend that money. There's a pretty strong group of lawmakers on Capitol Hill who really wanted to see some of that money redirected more to nutrition programs, but also land conservation, ways to make farming more environmentally friendly, and that sort of thing.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, Catharine Richert with Congressional Quarterly, we thank you very much.

CATHARINE RICHERT: Thank you for having me.