- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 9, 2002

The Senate yesterday approved the most expensive farm bill in U.S. history despite objections by several prominent farm-state Republicans, who called it a protectionist boondoggle.
The measure, which would increase agricultural spending by $82.8 billion over the next 10 years, was approved 64-35. The bill now goes to President Bush, whose advisers say he will sign the legislation quietly.
Election-year control of the closely divided Senate was prominent in the debate. Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle and two of his Democratic colleagues on the agriculture committee, Tom Harkin of Iowa and Tim Johnson of South Dakota, viewed the bill as an important test of the party's ability to deliver for farm constituents.
"It's an attempt, in a very closely divided Congress, to try to help individual senators and House members," said Sen. Richard G. Lugar of Indiana, ranking Republican on the Senate Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry Committee.
Facing considerable Republican opposition, Democrats were able to win over senators from New England by expanding dairy subsidies nationwide. The regional program expired last fall.
The bill leaves open the potential of renewing the New England Dairy Compact alone in 2006, when the program's champion, Sen. James M. Jeffords of Vermont, would be up for re-election as an independent. His defection from the Republican Party last year gave Democrats control of the Senate.
Democratic leaders also received votes of the Republican senators from Alabama, Richard C. Shelby and Jeff Sessions, who supported the bill's generous subsidies for the peanut industry. Mr. Sessions is up for re-election this year.
Farm-belt Republicans from Kansas, Nebraska, Iowa and Indiana voted against the bill in what some Democrats portrayed as an attempt to undermine the re-election bid of Mr. Harkin, lead supporter of the bill.
Mr. Harkin, chairman of the agriculture committee, was facing a challenge by Republican Rep. Greg Ganske, who voted against the farm bill in the House last week. Republican Sen. Charles E. Grassley of Iowa voted against the bill, objecting to increasing the cost of environmental remediation of livestock operations.
Sen. Pat Roberts, Kansas Republican, called his vote against the bill "one of the most difficult decisions of my career." His fellow Kansan, Republican Sen. Sam Brownback, also voted no.
The legislation will cost at least $248.6 billion over six years, making it the single most expensive farm bill ever. Critics said it returned to a dependence on farm subsidies, a trend that Congress tried to stop with the Freedom to Farm Act in 1996.
"We seem to have done a U-turn," Mr. Roberts said. "We are moving back again to price supports."
Sen. Fred Thompson, Tennessee Republican, called the bill "a grab bag of regional special interests."
"This farm bill spends an enormous amount of taxpayers' money at a time when we cannot afford it," Mr. Thompson said.
Mr. Daschle said that since 1996, commodity prices "have dropped every single year, and farmers are now receiving roughly half the income they were receiving in 1996."
"This farm bill is not just about providing assistance to farmers and ranchers; it is also about preserving a way of life," Mr. Daschle said. "By helping producers and revitalizing our rural communities, we are securing a stronger future for all of America."
The bill increases price supports for grain and cotton farmers, and reinstates subsidies for honey, wool and mohair, which is made from goat hair. New subsidies are added for milk, peanuts, lentils and chickpeas.
Congress and the administration agreed last year to spend $73.5 billion more on agriculture over the next decade. But estimated costs of the new subsidies have risen to $82.8 billion even before Mr. Bush signs them into law. The House approved the bill 280-141 last week.
Mr. Harkin said the bill "takes a gigantic step forward in conservation." It calls for spending $985 million for farmland protection, up from $35 million under current law.
Mr. Thompson and other opponents of the bill say the new subsidies will threaten the nation's commitment in the World Trade Organization to limit crop price supports. They say the United States has been urging trading partners to lower farm subsidies while raising its own, hurting America's ability to export farm products and costing U.S. consumers more at grocery stores.
Sen. George Allen, Virginia Republican, said the peanut subsidies will cost taxpayers $4 billion and will "devastate" peanut farmers in southeastern Virginia, where production costs are higher because the crop is different from the variety grown in the Deep South.
Mr. Allen also said the farm bill will add to the federal deficit while the economy is recovering from the September 11 terrorist attacks and a recession.
"I wouldn't have been able to sleep at night if I voted yes," Mr. Allen said.


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