Farm reform fizzles in Congress

Despite many calls for change, the Senate's $286 billion bill is likely to continue the status quo.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

They rallied around a single ideal, looking for ways to grow America's food in a cheaper, more sustainable, more equitable way.

Conservatives, liberals, budget hawks, environmentalists, two senior senators, and the Bush administration all pushed to restructure federal agriculture policy. But despite unprecedented calls for reform, the farm bill now before the Senate looks likely to be virtually an extension of the current law.

The $286 billion bill may not even pass this year, because of a standoff between Democrats and Republicans over how many amendments to allow. But when it does pass, the 2007 farm bill will be a triumph of farm lobbies and entrenched politics on Capitol Hill.

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"This is special-interest politics at its finest," says Sara Hopper, an attorney with Environmental Defense, one of a number of groups who have been pushing reform to the current subsidy system. "We have defenders of the status quo who are very good at defending the status quo."

There is still a possibility that the bill could gain new momentum and pass this week. A cloture vote was expected Thursday that might end the stalemate. But at press time, the bill still appeared stalled in a clash of party leadership, with Republicans determined to have an open amendment process and Democrats countering that that would lead to a "Christmas tree" bill with senators trying to tack on amendments dealing with the estate tax, energy issues, and Iraq, among other things.

But after months of talk about the need for real change in the way the subsidy system works, the traditional payment structures are still in place. The few reform amendments with good prospects include one that would cap farmers' total subsidy payments at $250,000 and require that they be "actively engaged" in farming. Another amendment would reform crop insurance and lower its cost to taxpayers.

Ultimately, the massive structure is incredibly difficult to change, analysts say, due to the power of the lobbies and the lawmakers on the agriculture committees, who tend to come from the states getting the subsidies.

"It's not a partisan issue, it's a rural issue," says Demian Moore, a senior policy analyst at Taxpayers for Common Sense. "For the people not on those committees, when it comes time to vote, there's not enough gain to them to risk a vote that will anger the people on those committees who they work with."

The movement for reform has been unprecedented in its size and its diversity, Mr. Moore and others say. Disparate groups – with interests ranging from nutrition and farmers in Africa to fiscal responsibility and environmental concerns – rallied together to create momentum for reform. The groups include the conservative Heritage Foundation, the Environmental Working Group, Taxpayers for Common Sense, the food-aid group Oxfam, and the Bush administration, among others.

Medical groups criticized a system that helps keep junk food cheap at a time of worsening obesity. Others have pointed to multimillionaires receiving large government subsidies. Even actress Alicia Silverstone got on the bandwagon, recording a message urging voters to tell their representatives to support the FRESH amendment, a broad attempt to replace the commodity subsidy structure with an insurance program that would act as a safety net for all farmers, not just those with large operations.

The amendment, put forward by Sens. Richard Lugar (R) of Indiana and Frank Lautenberg (D) of New Jersey, has generated perhaps the most attention. It has little chance of passing, most Washington insiders say, but a strong showing in the voting could send an important message.

The farm lobbies, in general, have criticized sweeping reforms like those Senators Lugar and Lautenberg suggest, but there has been some splitting in the ranks. The National Corn Growers Association (NCGA), surprisingly, has backed a new program in the Senate bill that would allow farmers to opt into a program in which they get $15 per acre each year in lieu of direct payments (which are typically more than that) along with an additional payment if crop revenues in their area drop below the average.

The NCGA has been interested for some time in moving to a revenue-based system, says Jon Doggett, the group's vice president of public policy, in part because the current price-triggered system often pays growers at the wrong times. "We want a system that works when you need it, not one that pays growers when they have a huge crop."

This position differs from that of the larger American Farm Bureau, which has criticized the optional program. The bureau is also disappointed that the bill before the Senate has shifted some money out of subsidies for commodities, even though it keeps all the traditional structures in place.

The group dismisses the major criticisms of the reformers – that America's farm policy tends to funnel money to the largest growers, encourages farm consolidation and the emptying out of rural America, and gives government checks to many who don't need it.

"It's really easy to say that the big chunk of payments go to the biggest farmers," says Tara Smith, the group's congressional affairs director. "But that's because big farmers are producing the majority of the nation's food and are the ones taking on the biggest financial risk."

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