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House Farm Bill: A Missed Opportunity for Leadership and Real Reform
Statement of Ken Cook, President, Environmental Working Group
July 27, 2007
House Agriculture Chairman Collin Peterson, Ranking Member Bob Goodlatte, members of their committee, and their staffs, are to be commended for working long and hard to produce the Farm Bill passed by the House of Representatives today. Much good will come from many of the bill’s provisions, if enacted into law, that increase funding and improve policy to protect the environment, provide assistance to hungry people at home and abroad, expand outreach to socially disadvantaged and minority farmers, and expand research on organic farming methods and the next generation of sustainable biofuel production. Moreover, Chairman Peterson made good on his promise to listen to all sides during the committee’s deliberations, even when he strongly disagreed, as did the other members of the committee.
However, on balance, this House farm bill will be remembered as a missed opportunity for reform of federal farm policies that are broken at their core. It also represents a failure of House leadership to serve the broader needs of the nation, instead of taking their cues at every turn from the farm subsidy lobby. This bill will not bear the scrutiny of passing time. We’re talking about mid-August, at the latest.
The commodity provisions will perpetuate, and in some cases worsen, the deepest, most offensive, and indeed scandalous flaws of the farm subsidy system. It’s hardly surprising that a committee whose 46 districts absorb 42 percent of the nation’s crop subsidy money would write a bill to perpetuate the inequity. What is surprising is that House leadership stamped ‘reform’ on the status quo subsidies that emerged.
The vast majority of America’s farmers and ranchers will still not receive a fair share of farm bill assistance, which will be funneled to a narrow group of large producers of just five perennially subsidized crops. In the name of saving family farms, taxpayers will actually be bankrolling their demise, both here in America and in some of the poorest nations in the world.
The payment limitation policies in the bill make mockery of reform, and as a consequence, the largest, wealthiest subsidized operations in the country will continue to collect an unlimited and growing share of taxpayer money. A millionaire with an enormous farm, half a brain and a cut-rate accountant will easily avoid the ‘hard cap’ subsidy cut-off of $1 million in earnings; the loophole-riddled ‘gimme cap’ will be no barrier to subsidies for high-earners in the $500,000 to $1 million range.
As IRS data and CBO’s score make clear, hardly anyone in those stratospherically high tax brackets will see their crop subsidy flow impeded by the bill’s ‘reforms,’ which extend the regressive policies of unlimited subsidies to anyone able to siphon them up.
At a time of high prices and robust earnings for producers of corn, soybeans and other crops, taxpayers will continue to obligated to make wasteful, automatic payments to the tune of $26 billion over the next five years. The biggest beneficiaries of the windfall will now receive an even larger share, thanks to a provision that actually boosts their automatic direct payments, and theirs alone, by 50 percent. In other words, under the bill’s payment limitation provisions that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi hailed as a “first step towards reform”, a husband and wife in the top ranks of subsidized farmers will automatically collect up to $200,000 more from taxpayers over the next five years.
Fair, commonsense reforms could have preserved an effective safety net for current subsidy recipients while redirecting billions of dollars to long-neglected needs: conservation programs, hunger assistance, healthier school lunches, rural development, disadvantaged and minority farmers...the list goes on.
Above all, this week’s House action on the farm bill reaffirms the need for reform interests outside the subsidy fraternity to stiffen their resolve, organize, and make their voices heard in the next phase of this debate. Much of what is good in this bill came about because of the effective pressure generated by the very “outsiders” the Agriculture Committee inveterately carps about.
That reform pressure was applied most skillfully and powerfully by the real heroes of this farm bill cycle in the House: Representatives Ron Kind (D-WI) and Jeff Flake (R-AZ). They stood up to the agriculture committee, and even to their own leadership, with a “Fairness Amendment” that was sufficiently threatening to the subsidy lobby to leverage increased funding for conservation, nutrition, organic agriculture, specialty crops, minority farmers and many other priorities. Had their amendment prevailed, the House would have provided America with a fairer set of policies for all of our farmers and ranchers, consumers, taxpayers, the environment, and the less fortunate here and abroad.
Most of the members who voted against the amendment actually voted against the interests of their own constituents.
Mr. Kind and Mr. Flake fell short on their full reform agenda to cap grotesquely large payments, and phase down the most wasteful ones, only in the face of the usual threat from the subsidy lobby to “take down the Farm Bill” and savage programs for the poor, black farmers, the environment and so forth. Nothing less than the full power of the commodity lobby and the House leadership was able to defeat the Kind-Flake Fairness Amendment.
They should be proud of the fight they put up on America’s behalf. Like so many others in the broad coalition their efforts helped to forge, EWG is proud to have fought by their side.