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House approves farm bill despite Bush veto threat

The $90-billion plan would rein in subsidies but fund specialty crops and environmental and nutritional programs.

July 28, 2007|James Gerstenzang | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — Ignoring a veto threat from President Bush, the House took the first step Friday toward renewing the backbone of the nation's farm program by approving legislation that would funnel billions of tax dollars to agriculture.

For the first time, the bill would set aside money to aid growers of specialty crops: various types of fruit, vegetables and nuts grown largely in California.

It also would increase funding for government nutrition programs for low-income families. And reflecting the broad reach of agriculture, it includes money for programs devoted to conservation and renewable energy.

"This farm bill is about much more than farms. It is about the food we eat, the clothes we wear and increasingly the fuel we will use," said Rep. Collin C. Peterson (D-Minn.), chairman of the House Agriculture Committee.

The $90-billion bill passed 231 to 191. The Senate is expected to begin work on its version of the measure in September. The current farm bill expires Sept. 30.

Bush has threatened to veto the House version because it would increase taxes on some multinational corporations that operate U.S. subsidiaries, a step included to help pay for about $4 billion in food stamp and other nutrition programs.

Republicans presented a nearly united front in opposing the bill; 19 GOP lawmakers broke ranks to support it. Democrats banded together to pass the bill, with just 14 party members opposing it.

The legislation's margin of approval left Democrats far short of the votes they would need to sustain a veto. But Peterson, in comments after the vote, noted that no farm bill had been vetoed in more than 40 years.

He said that if Bush were to veto it, Republicans "would pay a heavy price in farm country."

Reflecting the partisan tenor of debate, House Minority Whip Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) said the House Democratic leadership took a measure that the agriculture committee had approved unanimously "and used it as a vehicle to raise taxes -- both on foreign companies who invest capital in America and create jobs here, and domestic energy producers who explore for natural gas in the deepest waters offshore."

House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.) argued that the bill was fiscally responsible, saying it would impose "real payment limitations" that would begin reducing farm subsidies over time.

One of the most politically sensitive disputes surrounding the bill was resolved Thursday, when the House rejected a proposal intended to shift about $12 billion in crop subsidies and direct payments to farmers toward conservation, rural development and nutrition programs that fight obesity.

The proposal, which would have marked a dramatic shift in Washington's agricultural policy, was advanced by Rep. Ron Kind (D-Wis.) and embraced by some conservative Republicans seeking to trim federal spending. Also backing it was a coalition of Democrats representing urban and suburban districts.

Kind, who grows corn and soybeans, questioned the propriety of subsidizing grain producers to the tune of tens of billions of dollars "when they're getting near-record prices." He said that two-thirds of the support went to the top 10% of eligible farmers.

Although Kind's proposal failed, the bill contains new steps intended to put reins on the subsidy payments, closing a loophole that has allowed farmers to avoid limits on how much they could receive from the government by owning parts of multiple farms.

The measure includes provisions to remove environmentally sensitive land from farming. But some critics complained that it should do more to promote good environmental farming practices.

The funding intended to help growers of specialty fruits, vegetables and nuts totals $1.6 billion. The money would pay for research programs, improved pest detection, aid to organic farming and the promotion of farmers markets.

"California agriculture is finally getting the respect and treatment it deserves. This is a huge win for California," said Rep. Dennis Cardoza (D-Atwater), chairman of the House Subcommittee on Horticulture and Organic Agriculture.

The legislation also would expand production of biofuels, promote labeling of meat to disclose country of origin (a provision food retailers and meatpackers opposed) and expand economic development in rural communities. One such effort would improve access to broadband telecommunications services.

james.gerstenzang@latimes.com

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Slicing the farm bill

Breakdown of total spending in the current House version of the $90-billion farm bill for fiscal years 2008 to 2017:

Food stamps and other nutritional programs: 62.7%

Subsidies and other help for farmers: 11.8%

Other, including rural development, research and energy: 11.7%

Conservation programs: 9.3%

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Source: House Agriculture Committee

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