Farm Bill Flaws

As debate begins on the Farm Bill this week, Democrats could have a fight on their hands. The long-awaited legislation was greeted by Nancy Pelosi as “a critical first step towards reform.” But in fact, it’s a lackluster, lily-livered attempt to preserve the status quo, crafted by a group of farm-state reps more interested in channeling federal pork to their districts’ agribusinesses than in helping small farmers, preserving the environment, or improving public health.

The bill’s major innovation is a “no money for millionaires” clause designed to prevent farmers who earn more than $1 million a year from claiming subsidies. As flagship reforms go, that’s pretty feeble: The bill’s cut-off point is five times higher than the $200,000 limit proposed by President Bush earlier this year. And when you look at the details, it gets even worse: The legislation is riddled with loopholes that would allow wealthy landowners to continue to qualify for free money, while reducing the incentives for them to go green.

That means small farmers who really need the money will continue to be put at a competitive disadvantage with megafarms that will reap the lion’s share of the legislation’s $35 billion in subsidy payments. And while the bill does set aside $1.6 billion for fruit and vegetable farmers, the vast majority of payments will still go to support commodity-crop farmers, keeping processed-food costs relatively low compared to fresh produce and perpetuating obesity and poor health. 

That the legislation achieves little shouldn’t surprise anyone: It was crafted by the House Agriculture Committee, a body dominated by farm-state representatives who’ve been feeding at the Farm Bill’s bottomless pork-barrel for as long as anyone can remember. The real disappointment is Pelosi’s readiness to accept their work—having made a half-hearted attempt to broker further reform, she’s now working to persuade her party that pushing for more change would cost votes in rural areas.  

Fortunately, a small group of Democrats led by Wisconsin’s Ron Kind have promised a rebellion, aiming to reduce subsidy income-limits to around $200,000 and cut back some of the over-spending. With Bush unlikely to risk vetoing the bill, the rebels represent the last line of defense; what the Democrats decide will shape the course for the country’s farmers for the next five years. It’s too late for half-measures and hesitant “first steps”; Democrats should act now, amend the hell out of the insipid Farm Bill they’ve been presented with, and legislate genuine agricultural reform.