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Farm bill passes both houses by margins to override veto

Whatever the cause for his sudden about-face on deficit spending, President Bush has promised to veto the new $300 billion farm bill. If he follows through, that means a sure reckoning with Congress, which passed the bill in a mid-May bipartisan landslide.

Facing an almost certain, enthusiastic override, why would Bush go through with a veto?

In recent interviews, several well-respected agriculture economists claimed Bush's farm bill actions are a lame duck's attempt at softening criticisms over past inability, or unwillingness, to tighten federal purse strings. After allowing stratospheric federal deficits during his tenure, the farm bill is essentially the Last Chance Saloon for Bush to make a financially conservative showing before leaving office.

As sides slowly converge for the final farm bill confrontation, one can almost hear spurs jingling.

Asked to assess Bush's recent conversion to deficit hawk (at least on agriculture), Neil Harl, Iowa State University Charles S. Curtis Distinguished Professor in Agriculture, suspected three things are going on at the White House. First, when President Bush signed the “fairly expensive” 2002 farm bill, “he got a lot of criticism for it from the non-agriculture side of the fence. I think that affected him.

“The second factor is Bush is trying to build a legacy in his last months in office. One of the things that he's being pilloried on — from both sides of the aisle, including arch-conservatives — is he's allowed the deficit to balloon to record proportions. And he has.”

The farm bill, says Harl, is little more than “a token, but it's his effort to shore up his standing in history. I think that need is more significant to him than we might think.”

The third factor involves international trade. Bush's trade team “complained bitterly after the 2002 farm bill that it was very difficult to negotiate and make progress in international trade due to bloated subsidies U.S. producers received.”

Congress votes

On May 9, Agriculture Secretary Ed Schafer said the farm bill would cost taxpayers $20 billion above baseline spending for the long-awaited legislation. This, he said, was unacceptable since the Bush administration had agreed to only $10 billion. Plus, the bill contained only moderate reforms — not the major ones Bush sought.

Schafer's comments drew an angry response from North Dakota Sen. Kent Conrad — one of the principal authors of the farm bill agreement — during a press briefing held two hours after Schafer's. Conrad and Senate Agriculture Committee Chair Tom Harkin briefed reporters to “correct inaccuracies” in administration statements.

“These are fictional numbers based on made-up scorekeeping that the administration has never applied to its own legislation or budgets,” Conrad said of Schafer's claim that the conference report increases spending by $20 billion.

“Under CBO (Congressional Budget Office) scoring, our farm bill spends $10 billion above baseline over the budget window.

“That's not my number. That's the number from CBO, which is Congress' nonpartisan, independent budget agency.”

The sparring between Congress and Bush officials continued for the next five days but did nothing to stem support for the new farm bill. That became obvious when, on May 14, the House passed the new legislation 318-106.

Following the vote, an ebullient Collin Peterson, chairman of the House Agriculture Committee and the floor manager for the bill in the House, declined to speculate on whether the president would follow through on the administration's oft-repeated veto threats.

“I'm not into speculating on what the White House will do — I just don't want to talk about that now,” said Peterson, D-Minn.

“I don't know the previous numbers, but this has to be one of the biggest votes for a farm bill in a long time.”

Saying he didn't know when he had been to so many “funerals” for a piece of legislation that was given up for dead several times, House Ways and Means Chairman Charles Rangel called the conference report “an exercise in showing what Congress can do when it works together.”

“This is a good bill that addresses many of the challenges Americans face every day,” said National Farmers Union President Tom Buis, who was singled out by Peterson for his aid in passing the bill. “Today's vote is a demonstration of the widespread support for this bill.”

Shortly after the House vote, Louisiana Rep. Charles Boustany, a farm bill conferee, also lauded the new bill. Asked to assess the legislation,

Boustany, a Republican, first pointed to its bipartisan crafting. “In fact, a majority of Republicans supported this bill. We've worked for over two years … to come up with a bill. Clearly, a lot of compromises were made.

“The bill that passed the House (last July) had been co-opted by the liberal Democratic leadership to the point where it included massive tax increases. Because we held the line at that point, we were finally able to get a good compromise … that passed yesterday.”

The passed bill “provides satisfactory protections for our farmers and does have significant reforms in it.”

Boustany said there is so much support for the bill that “I believe we have the votes to override a veto and would urge (President Bush) to back down on that.”

One last thing, said Boustany: “My position on this farm bill is due to it being good policy. This has nothing to do with fear over the upcoming political season. I fought hard for good policy and we have that in this farm bill.”

On the heels of such a lopsided House vote, the Senate was also expected to pass the new farm bill by a wide margin. That's exactly what happened on May 15 when the bill was approved 81-15.

Just prior to the bill passing, Arkansas Sen. Blanche Lincoln — a farm bill conferee — said the legislation would “provide tremendous economic stimulus to rural America.” Besides funding agriculture, conservation and nutrition programs, “the bill funds water and waste disposal grants and loans that are absolutely critical to our rural communities.”

Asked how Mid-South agriculture fared in the bill, Lincoln said the region's big crops were expected “to make more sacrifices than anybody. We fought back very hard and were able to protect ourselves a good bit.”

One problem in crafting the new farm bill is “there are so few (politicians in Congress) that come from rural areas, that understand farm programs. Nor do they understand the diversity and differences in which commodities are grown in this country.”

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