WASHINGTON — The House on Thursday passed a farm bill that would increase government subsidies for major commodities by 70% over the next decade, scrapping a 6-year-old law that sought to wean farmers off government aid.
The bill also includes an important provision for many in California: It restores federal food stamp benefits for legal immigrants who lost them in 1996 under the Welfare Reform Act.
The Senate is expected to approve the bill early next week, and President Bush said Thursday that he planned to sign it. Although the White House earlier had resisted big subsidy increases, Bush hailed the measure for providing "a generous and reliable safety net" for farmers.
The bill calls for federal aid to farms to total $171 billion over 10 years, an increase of $73.5 billion over current levels. It provides the biggest benefits to farms in the South and Midwest.
Far less would go to California, even though the state is the biggest agricultural producer in the nation. That's because federal farm programs focus on subsidizing specified row crops--corn, wheat, rice and cotton among them--while most of California's farmers grow fruits and vegetables not covered by federal programs.
"We're very pleased with the farm bill overall," said Bill Pauli, president of the California Farm Bureau. "But for fruit and vegetable and specialty crop producers, there is very little in the farm bill for them. That's one of the frustrations."
Fruit and vegetable growers stand to benefit from the bill's new spending on conservation programs--an increase of $17 billion, or 80%, over 10 years--and other provisions that promote agricultural research and exports.
But only 9% of all California farms receive the commodity subsidies that make up the bulk of the bill.
Overall, the state received $586.4 million in federal agricultural assistance in 2001 out of a total federal agriculture budget of $21 billion, according to the California Farm Bureau.
The bill passed the House, 280 to 141. The California delegation tilted against the measure: 34 opposed it (11 Republicans, 23 Democrats); 17 voted for it (nine Republicans, eight Democrats).
In the Senate, Democrat Barbara Boxer said she would vote for the bill despite the concerns that her home state farmers in California did not get an equitable share of aid. An aide to Democrat Dianne Feinstein said she was undecided.
The bill was praised by farm groups, but lambasted by analysts at both ends of the political spectrum.
Environmentalists and advocates for smaller family farms opposed the measure because it did not include a provision--approved in a version initially passed by the Senate--that would have slapped an annual cap of $275,000 per farm couple on federal subsidy payments. The cap had gained considerable political momentum as a way to channel more money to small and mid-size farms and reduce big payments to a relatively small number of large agribusinesses.
But the cap ran into powerful opposition from Southern farmers, whose big rice and cotton operations would have been hardest hit by it. The compromise drafted by a House-Senate conference committee set a $360,000 cap on payments--but left loopholes that critics said rendered the limit meaningless.
Conservatives also denounced the bill because it repudiated the free-market principals of the Freedom to Farm Act of 1996. That measure was designed to eliminate government planting controls and subsidies, and thus open agriculture to the risks and rewards of the free market.
Stuart Butler, vice president of the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank, denounced the bill as "a shameless example of pork-barrel spending" that Bush should veto.
Bush opposed earlier versions of the bill for providing increased subsidies that he argued would stimulate overproduction and benefit a relatively small number of big farms.
He said Thursday that he would sign the compromise measure because, among other things, it included strong conservation provisions and would spread spending more evenly over its 10-year period.
As he did when he approved steel import quotas earlier this year, Bush's support for the farm bill shows his willingness to alienate free-market allies when faced with stiff demands from a politically important constituency.
The bill's backers said the new and increased commodity subsidies were needed to stabilize a farm economy that has been battered by low prices ever since the 1996 legislation passed.
"This farm bill provides for a strong safety net for our agricultural producers," said House Agriculture Committee Chairman Larry Combest (R-Texas).
The food stamp provision was included because the bill reauthorized nutrition programs. It restores food stamp eligibility for any legal immigrant who has been in the United States for at least five years; legal immigrant children would become immediately eligible, without a residency requirement.
Congressional analysts estimate that about 360,000 legal immigrants and their children would be affected; about a third of them are estimated to be in California.
The principal impact in California will be to reduce state government costs for food stamps. That is because the state since 1998 has picked up the cost of continuing food stamps to legal immigrants after they were cut off by federal law.