Peoria Journal Star

May 3, 2002

House OKs subsidy-rich farming bill 
  $360,000 annual payment cap may face Senate scrutiny
    Durbin, Fitzgerald haven't decided vote 

By DORI MEINERT 
Copley News Service

WASHINGTON, D.C. - The House of Representatives on Thursday strongly endorsed a House-Senate farm bill agreement that would dramatically increase federal subsidies to Illinois farmers as well as those in other Midwestern and Southern states. 

The House voted 280 to 141 in favor of the agreement that would authorize $180 billion in farm spending over 10 years, a $73.5 billion increase over the current level. 

It also would increase funding for conservation programs to benefit livestock producers and fruit and vegetable growers, who historically have received little federal money. 

"Though imperfect, the new farm bill allows for a strong safety net for our producers, it increases conservation funding by 80 percent and it strengthens emphasis on governmental export marketing programs," said Rep. Tim Johnson, R-Urbana, a member of the House Agriculture Committee. 

President Bush gave supporters a boost earlier Thursday when he said he will sign the farm bill agreement. Last fall, Bush had supported neither the House nor the Senate bills. 

"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 statement issued by the White House. 

Bush also rejected critics' claims that the measure would violate trade agreements. 

His decision dealt a blow to critics who say the House-Senate agreement will continue to give large subsidies to the largest agricultural producers and divert conservation funds to large hog farms. 

All but three House members from Illinois voted for the agreement. The three who opposed it are: Reps. Judy Biggert, R-Hinsdale; Mark Kirk, R-Wilmette; and Danny Davis, D-Chicago. 

Before final passage, the House rejected, 251-172, an effort to impose stricter caps on payments to large farms and to steer more money for conservation. 

"It's always difficult to change the status quo," particularly in an election season, said Rep. Ron Kind, D-Wis., who led the effort. 

The Senate's original farm bill contained a $275,000-per-farm cap on subsidies. The House version set the cap at $550,000. The compromise agreement says a farm couple can receive no more than $360,000 a year in farm subsidies. 

However, environmentalists and taxpayer advocates complain that a
"loophole" in current law that allows producers to circumvent existing caps resurfaced in the compromise bill. 

The payment caps may emerge as a larger obstacle in the Senate, which is expected to vote on the farm bill agreement next week. 

Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., and Peter Fitzgerald, R-Ill., are reviewing the House-Senate agreement and haven't decided they will vote, their aides said. Both voted in favor of the payment caps in February despite opposition from Illinois farm groups. 

Eleven environmental groups including the Sierra Club had urged House members to oppose the farm bill agreement. The agreement also allows large factory farms to receive up to $450,000 in conservation funds. 

Joe Theissen, executive director of Taxpayers for Common Sense, called the House-Senate agreement "flawed farm policy" that some future Congress will be forced to fix. 

"In coming years, most economists expect farm spending to rise substantially because the legislation encourages overplanting and overproduction, which will lead to a glut of products on the market and are certain to drive prices down," Theissen said. 

That was the argument the Bush administration used last fall in calling for radical reform. 

The House-Senate agreement is a sharp departure from the 1996 "Freedom to Farm" bill that was supposed to wean farmers off government payments and give them more control over what they plant. However, when crop prices dropped, Congress approved a series of emergency aid packages for farmers. 

Rep. Ray LaHood, R-Peoria, blames the failure of the federal government to make good on promises to increase agriculture markets. 

"This new farm bill provides the safety net needed by American farmers to deal with the record low prices they have faced in the past four years," LaHood said. 

Illinois has historically been one of the favored states, receiving the
third-largest amount of federal farm payments, $5.6 billion, over the past five years. 

The state's lawmakers and farm groups widely praised the House-Senate agreement. 

"This bill maintains the market orientation of the 1996 farm bill, maintains flexibility for farmers in determining what to plant and provides for the largest investment in conservation ever," said Rep. John Shimkus, R-Collinsville. 

Rep. David Phelps, D-Eldorado, who sits on the Agriculture Committee, said the measure reflects an appropriate balance of agriculture and conservation needs.