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Pork, not policy

The House-blessed farm bill is a wasted opportunity to update agribusiness and cut waste.

May 15, 2008

After more than a year of wrangling over the farm bill, this is the best our tireless reformers in Congress could do to trim agricultural subsidies: Farm couples making more than $1.5 million a year will no longer receive taxpayer money. In other words, a historic opportunity to end this country's most wasteful and economically ruinous corporate welfare system has been lost.

The House on Wednesday approved the five-year, $290-billion farm bill, and the Senate is expected to follow by Friday. The House vote was wide enough to overcome a veto threat from President Bush, who recognizes that the bill offers little in the way of changes to a Depression-era system of farm subsidies that have long outgrown their usefulness.

Amazingly, even though farm incomes are soaring and it's nearly impossible for anyone to argue that agribusiness really needs government handouts, a veto-proof majority could be achieved in the Senate as well. That's because the farm-state lawmakers who crafted the bill were so desperate to keep their subsidies that they larded the package with goodies guaranteed to lure support from across the political spectrum. For states such as California that don't traditionally get much in the way of subsidies, there are new outlays for fruit and vegetable growers; for urban districts there's a $10-billion increase in nutrition programs such as food stamps; for environmentalists there's more money for conservation programs. Even thoroughbred horse owners would make some hay.

Amid the fat are some worthwhile items, such as the nutrition boost and a change in the ethanol-subsidy program to discourage making the biofuel from corn. There also are some genuinely awful additions, such as a $3.8-billion disaster-assistance program that could prompt landowners to plow up endangered grasslands on the Great Plains, and a program to prop up sugar growers that will ensure Americans continue to pay double the world price for the sweetener.

Farm subsidies have survived for this long by holding the good hostage to the bad. The run-up in food prices, in some cases worsened by our agricultural policies, created a chance to break out of this rut. So did a growing awareness of the economic damage wrought by subsidies, which destroy livelihoods of farmers overseas who can't compete with government-backed American grain.

There are a few senators who recognize this bill as the bloated monstrosity it is. The last hope is that there are enough of them to uphold Bush's veto.

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