Monday, August 6, 2007

Whither the Farm Bill Now?

I took a farm bill break, and so did most people for a few days after the House passed it on July 27 (its passage is reported here in haiku form). But it's worth taking stock of where we stand, with the Senate due to take up the bill in September, after the recess.

The House put together a bill which was much like the 2002 farm bill in its essentials, particularly in its approach to subsidies, but did manage to include funding for a number of desirable new programs and increase nutrition spending. Both the Environmental Working Group (statement via Mulch) and Pelosi credit the failed Kind/Flake amendment for creating pressure to depart even minimally from the status quo, with EWG suggesting the amendment was "sufficiently threatening to the subsidy lobby to leverage increased funding for conservation, nutrition, organic agriculture, specialty crops, minority farmers and many other priorities.”

There were a couple of positive things about the bill that I haven't yet noted. Dan Morgan, on, says: "
The big losers in closed-door deal making that went on in Pelosi’s office until the wee hours last Thursday morning were the oil and gas industry and the crop insurance industry. Their lobbyists were caught short, but there is plenty of time for them to regroup as the bill goes to the Senate and then to a final House-Senate conference." Why were the lobbyists upset? The federal share of private crop insurance administrative costs was reduced, and new fees were imposed on deepwater oil and gas wells. I can get behind those changes.

organics got some additional funds in the House farm bill, including $50 million over the next five years in assistance payments to farmers in the process of converting to organic. Since conversion is a slow and arduous process, with certification (and premium prices) only coming after several years of increased investment, this is a welcome form of aid, though the amount spent this way would ideally be larger.

So what can we expect from the Senate in September? Despite a slimmer Democratic majority, the Senate Agriculture Committee chairman, Sen. Tom Harkin of Iowa, is considered to be more sympathetic to progressive alternatives than House chairman Collin Peterson (D-MN). The San Francisco Chronicle proclaimed him “friendlier to conservation and nutrition programs" and noted his support of "tougher payment limits." In particular, Harkin will be looking to bring back the Conservation Security Program he was instrumental in creating, funding for which was neglected in the House bill. He has indicated
that he supports the tax proposal, closing a loophole for foreign corporations, that created so much furor during the House passage of the bill.

What can we hope for and work for?

The Food Research and Action Center urges us to use the August recess "to educate Senators about the importance of Farm Bill nutrition title investments.” That is, preserve the modest funding increases passed by the House; given their modestness, perhaps even improve upon them (hey, we can dream). If anti-hunger efforts are important to you, this is a good time to craft a letter to your Senator.

Despite the disagreements within the progressive blogosphere over the Kind/Flake amendment and its merits or dangers, one thing everyone (even, somewhat frighteningly, Bush; but with the surprising exception of Barbara Boxer) seems to agree on after passage of the House bill is that payment caps remain too high (currently, $1 million in farm earnings in order to be disqualified for subsidies). This should be a major focus of efforts as the bill goes to the Senate in September, something both liberals and conservatives agree on (for different reasons)-- a no-brainer. Sen. Grassley (R-IA) and Sen. Dorgan (D-ND) are planning a bipartisan push for lower income caps ($250K instead of $1 million), and we should urge our senators to support this effort. Since Bush wants this too, lower income caps might also reduce the likelihood of the threatened presidential veto.

Another surprising place where one might find oneself agreeing with the Bush administration over the Democratic House’s farm bill: international food aid. Shipping surplus food overseas, with its associated energy costs, waste, and distribution challenges, doesn’t make sense. Helping to shore up local farm economies in developing countries does. I wish they’d stop calling it “Mr. Bush’s idea”; it’s not like he invented it. But why was this dropped from the House bill? Can it be revived in the Senate?

A couple of other legislative matters to follow, and consider whether you'll support:

Democrats Dick Durbin of Illinois and Sherrod Brown of Ohio will be introducing the Farm Safety Net Improvement Act of 2007. Discussed here, the legislation would change the structure of subsidies to be allocated, not purely based on crop prices, but also on yield. Structuring payments in this way would aid farmers who have a bad year despite high prices, and discourage over-production when prices are low. Durbin and Brown also support the $250K income cap. Here’s a bill overview (.pdf) from the American Farmland Trust, who support the measure.

If you were a fan of the Kind/Flake amendment in the House, the whole matter is likely to be revisited. Dick Lugar (R-IN) supports a version of the Kind amendment. Again, the whole farm bill debate is a dance of strange bedfellows, and Farm Bill Girl at Daily Kos has often pointed to Lugar's far-from-progressive, pro-free-trade ideological reasons for supporting the amendment as proof that it's dangerous.

The Senate is also due to take up the Iraq war later in September, which may leave only a short period available for real debate on the farm bill. Harkin is hinting that the current bill may need to be extended for a few months until the new one is finished. However, the House floor debate lasted less than 24 hours, and we should be prepared for the alternative possibility of things getting pushed through quickly. The timing of the August recess gives us the opportunity to gear up for whichever parts of this fight we deem most crucial.

Meanwhile, Tom Philpott over at Grist talks about work-arounds: how to transcend the evils of the inevitably flawed farm bill by forming local production and distribution networks.

Credit to, as usual, for pointing to a bunch of these links. The Ethicurean's round-ups are indispensable too.

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