Iowans, among the greatest beneficiaries of ag subsidies, should be embarrassed by the shape the farm bill is taking. It preserves the current subsidy regimen that cannot be justified and is under attack from many quarters. The worst part of it is that direct payments -- also called "Freedom to Farm" payments -- survive unscathed despite the fact that they go to farmers or distant urban landlords regardless of what is grown or not grown.
These direct payments total some $5.5 billion per year.
Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, wanted to divert that $5.5 billion to fund the Conservation Security Program, a vital but under-funded program that promotes conservation on working lands.
Harkin was forced on Aug. 1 to acknowledge that he does not have enough votes on the Ag Committee to get the job done. The House already passed a farm bill preserving direct payments and a structure that allows huge subsidies to mega-farms.
So we asked the senator: Does the agri-industrial lobby own the farm bill process?
It does at the committee level, Harkin said.
There you have it: The chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee admitting that the Farm Bureau, the corn growers, the sugar growers, et al., control how farm legislation is shaped.
"It's hard to change a system when you're getting free money," Harkin told us. "It really does cry out for reform."
Harkin said that the legislation could take an entirely different look when it gets to the Senate floor in September. Other senators outside the committee process know that environmental groups, taxpayer watchdogs, and the Bush administration are all watching. President Bush has already promised to veto the House Farm Bill because of its profligate ways.
Clearly, Harkin hopes that a subsidy reform bill will arise during Senate debate. We asked if he will offer amendments changing this unsustainable subsidy regimen. Harkin replied that he is examining his options, but is not ready to tip off opponents.
We expect that Harkin will lead the charge with bipartisan support in shaping a farm bill that looks into the future rather than a gilded past for the few big boys. Direct payments must end. Huge subsidies for huge agri-industrial farms must end. They give a black eye for programs that do support family farms, rural development and renewable energy.
Art Cullen is editor of The Storm Lake Times in Storm Lake, Iowa, where this first appeared. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.
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