New farm bill provides election-year expansion in farm subsidies

Thursday, May 2nd 2002, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

WASHINGTON (AP) _ President Bush said Thursday he will sign the election-year farm bill nearing final passage in Congress. It would boost spending by 70 percent and increase subsidies to grain and cotton farms while adding thousands of other producers to the federal dole.

Bush said the legislation isn't everything he wanted but will ``help ensure the immediate and long-term viability of our farm economy.''

The bill marks the reversal of the market-oriented policy of the 1996 Freedom to Farm law that was supposed to wean farmers from government subsidies.

A final House vote on the bill was expected by midday Thursday. A Senate vote was possible in the afternoon.

``While this compromise agreement did not satisfy all of my objectives, I am pleased that this farm bill provides a generous and reliable safety net for our nation's farmers and ranchers and is consistent with the principles I outlined,'' Bush said in a written statement before the House vote.

The bill would authorize $180 billion in spending over the next 10 years, a $73.5 billion increase over existing programs. The legislation provides new payments for everything from milk and lentils to honey and wool.

Also, there is an 80 percent increase in land-conservation programs that will benefit livestock farms and fruit and vegetable growers who have historically received little federal cash.

``This bill addresses multiple needs in a balanced way,'' said Daren Coppock, chief executive of the National Association of Wheat Growers.

But the bill's subsidy boost has angered foreign competitors, and the European Union said Thursday it was considering challenging the payments before the World Trade Organization. Under WTO limits, certain U.S. farm subsidies cannot exceed $19.1 billion annually.

``The United States is increasing trade-distorting support for (American) farmers that will harm developing countries. This is what we are fiercely opposed to,'' EU spokesman Gregor Kreuzhuber.

A congressional critic of the bill, Rep. Ron Kind, D-Wis., planned a last-ditch attempt to derail it. He was proposing that congressional negotiators be directed to set new limits on payments to big farms and use the savings for conservation needs and other programs.

A similar proposal passed the House 265-158 last month but the vote was not binding on the negotiators.

Under the bill, farms could continue to receive some subsidies in unlimited amounts.

``A lot of my colleagues have come up to me expressing a lot of dissatisfaction with the final product,'' Kind said.

Keith Williams, a spokesman for the House Agriculture Committee, said the bill was ``well-balanced, broad-based'' and certain to pass.

The bill would pump billions of dollars into the economies of Plains and Southern states that are critical for Republicans. It has been praised by groups including the National Milk Producers Federation, United Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Association and the American Farm Bureau Federation.

Last fall, the administration issued a 120-page policy statement, hailed by environmentalists and other critics of farm programs, that said federal programs stimulate excess production, inflate land rents and largely benefit a relatively small number of big farms. Economists say the new bill does little to address those complaints.

Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman's support for the bill is a ``complete flip-flop,'' said Ken Cook, president of the Environmental Working Group. ``I salute her for trying last year, but this is quite a stunning public defeat'' at the hands of the House Agriculture Committee chairman, Rep. Larry Combest, R-Texas.

Two committee members who favored a more market-oriented policy, Republican John Boehner of Ohio and Democrat Cal Dooley of California, said in a statement that the bill ``represents a giant leap backward in federal agriculture policy.''

Environmentalists say the $17 billion increase in spending on land-conservation programs over 10 years was inadequate, given that crop subsidies also would grow substantially under the bill.

Animal-welfare groups lamented the rejection by congressional negotiators of several Senate-passed provisions, including one that would have set tougher standards for dog breeders. The legislation also would exclude small research animals such as rats and mice from a federal law that sets animal handling standards. The bill would, however, ban the interstate shipment of fighting birds.