- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 6, 2008

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

Debate on reauthorization of the 2007 farm bill has raged in Agriculture Committee rooms and on the floor of both the House and the Senate for the past year. Most of those who have been in and around past farm bill reauthorizations agree that this time the debate has been different. Never before have so many diverse interests been part of the discussion.

This is because of a growing recognition that the farm bill is about much more than farms. In the past, Bread for the World’s farm-bill advocacy has largely focused on the nutrition title since the bill governs the food-stamp program, our nation’s first line of defense against hunger, and several other key nutrition programs. But particularly in the last few years, we’ve come to appreciate just how tightly the fates of hungry people, from rural America to rural Africa, are tied up in the U.S. farm bill.

With President Bush’s recent visit to Africa, including the West African countries of Benin and Ghana, public attention has been drawn to the continent’s economic problems and possibilities. The farm bill plays a role in both. For example, recent research shows that reforms to the U.S. cotton program would improve the welfare of roughly 10 million people in West Africa.

Many struggling U.S. families would also benefit from farm-bill reforms. For example, at least 25 million low-income people receive food-stamp benefits each month, half of them children. The purchasing power of these benefits has eroded significantly because policy changes enacted in 1996 have had the effect of freezing benefit levels. Today, the average food-stamp benefit is only $1 per person per meal, insufficient to ensure that families can afford nutritious food.

These are just two examples of why farm-bill reauthorization presents a major opportunity to combat hunger and poverty here at home and around the world, while maintaining a safety net for struggling farm and rural families, many of whom receive very little support from the current bill.

Yet this opportunity is in danger of being squandered. On March 15, the bill will expire unless Congress takes action. A three-way negotiation among the House, Senate and administration is underway, but resolution remains elusive.

Funding is at the crux of the conflict. Both the Senate and the House recognized the need to invest more in the food-stamp program by passing increases in their respective versions of the farm bill. Conservation, fruit and vegetable promotion, energy and rural development were also increased. Each bill relied on outside offsets to pay for at least part of the new spending. The administration objected to the offsets.

In his State of the Union address, Mr. Bush made it clear: “If any bill raising taxes reaches my desk, I will veto it.” He has repeatedly emphasized that this includes the House and Senate versions of the farm bill.

Rep. Jim McGovern, Massachusetts Democrat, initiated a letter, signed by 153 Democratic representatives, which called on House Agriculture Committee Chairman Collin Peterson, Minnesota Democrat, to make sure that the final farm bill includes at a minimum the nutrition funding levels passed by the House.

Twenty-eight senators signed a similar letter circulated by Sens. Richard Durbin, Illinois Democrat, and Robert Casey, Pennsylvania Democrat. Despite this high level of support, the nutrition increases approved by both chambers are in danger of being scaled back.

The best farm bill at this point would be a compromise between the president and Congress. There is a way forward. Modest changes to the commodity title could free up enough money to ensure that all congressional priorities are funded without inviting a presidential veto. For example, the Dorgan-Grassley amendment to limit annual commodity payments to $250,000 per household, which won majority support on the Senate floor, would have saved $1.154 billion over 10 years. Lowering direct payments to the top 20 percent of recipients by just 10 percent could yield more than $2 billion in savings over 10 years.

These options simply give an idea of the types of modest changes that could save significant amounts of money - resources that could be used to reduce hunger and poverty in our country and around the world.

A good farm bill - one that funds priorities like nutrition, conservation, and fruits and vegetables; makes the commodity programs fairer; and does not resort to outside revenue raisers is close. Congress only needs to take the final step.

David Beckmann is president of Bread for the World.

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