Thursday, July 26, 2007

Time to Stop Fiddling with the Farm Bill

[Commentary] The U.S. House of Representatives should move quickly today and pass the 2007 Farm Bill without fiddling around with a bunch of amendments. It would be good for Iowa.

House Agriculture Committee Chairman Collin Peterson has worked tirelessly for months to forge a series of fragile compromises in writing the legislation. He has done what few expected could be done. Peterson, a Minnesota Democrat from a district not altogether different from Iowa, has put together a bill that has received the blessing of organizations spanning the ideological spectrum -- from the progressive National Farmers Union to the powerful American Farm Bureau Federation.

Iowans had their hand in crafting the bill as well, with Blue Dog Democrat Rep. Leonard Boswell and conservative firebrand Republican Rep. Steve King serving on the ag committee. Both Boswell and King played important roles behind the scenes in moving the bill through the committee.

Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi and House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer will push for passage on the House floor today, but the clamour of attacks against the bill grows louder by the hour.

Following a national press conference with U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Mike Johanns on Wednesday, Republicans who had supported the bill have begun to split over a financing issue. Those Republicans turning against the bill include none other than Virginia Rep. Bob Goodlatte, the senior Republican on the ag committee who stood beside Peterson on Tuesday singing the bill's praises.

The Republicans are taking issue with a proposal to fund part of the bill with a tax on foreign businesses that operate in the United States. Republicans may just be playing games, however, taking advantage of the lack of unity in the Democratic Congress for their own political gain.

The bill is under attack from the other side of the aisle, as well. Many progressive organizations continue to rally behind Wisconsin Democrat Ron Kind, another of our neighbors representing a district bordering northeast Iowa. Kind has joined forces with Arizona Republican Jeff Flake and others in the House to push their "Fairness in Farm and Food Policy Amendment" in an effort to phase out the federal safety net for farmers.

Kind has good intentions, and many of the proposals in his amendment would work wonders for small and medium-sized farming operations in rural Iowa. His proposals would end the subsidization of mega-corporate agribusiness and channel those funds to important conservation, nutrition and specialty crops programs.

But he goes too far in his crusade to end traditional subsidies. And his approach would harm Iowa's economy.

Farm subsidies were never intended to pad the bottom line of major corporations. That problem needs fixing. But let's not throw the baby out with the bath water. Federal farm programs in the United States, including price supports and subsidies, have resulted in the most stable, bountiful food supply that any nation has enjoyed in the history of the world.

Subsidies have always caused consternation and bickering, but mass starvation in America is really a thing of the past, thanks in large part to the New Deal liberal ideology that brought us federal farm programs. I'm not saying people don't go to bed hungry in America today -- they do -- but we've come a long way from the soup lines of the Great Depression.

Farm programs have helped control the volatility in commodity markets caused by weather disasters and other inherent risks involved with agriculture. And most programs are supposed to operate on a counter-cyclical basis, meaning that when commodity prices are low, farmers get some help. When prices are high, as they are now for Iowa's corn and soybeans, the payments aren't necessary. There's that "farm safety net" you're always hearing about.

Serious reform in our subsidy programs are needed, and most everyone recognizes that the House Agriculture Committee's bill is far from perfect. It simply doesn't go far enough to stop big agribusiness corporations from taking advantage of commodity payments. But as House Speaker Pelosi said this week, the bill is a "critical first step for reform."

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