Leader Blues

Wednesday, August 01, 2007

EDITORIALS>>Farm bill cuts waste

Nothing forces members of Congress to choose between the national wellbeing and parochial interests like a farm bill, which establishes the nation’s agriculture policy and spending in five-year increments. The bill passed Friday by the House of Representatives moves the national and farm-belt interests slightly closer, barely enough to call the bill reform.

The narrowly Democratic House and Speaker Nancy Pelosi deserve a medium-sized cheer for the good work that produced a farm program that is more economical, compassionate and farsighted than the present law and just slightly fairer. If it becomes law, big agricultural combines would still receive needlessly fat subsidies at a time of soaring crop prices but not as much as they do now. Arkansas’ Democratic congressmen voted for it, and it’s easy to see why. Arkansas, and not merely the handful of rich farm outfits in east Arkansas, would do well under the bill. Arkansas’ lone Republican congressman, John Boozman, voted against it, like most other Republicans in a show of protest over a provision of the bill that closes a tax loophole for the U.S. profits of offshore corporations. They tried to argue that a tax loophole for big foreign corporations was good for American workers.

But let’s save the real congratulations for the fall in the hope that the Senate will fashion and force upon the House an even fairer program and one that is less likely to bring international repercussions. The World Trade Organization will rule soon whether lavish U.S. government crop subsidies violate free-trade agreements. It does not look hopeful. Only last week the W.T.O. issued an interim report that U.S. cotton subsidies did not conform to trade rules. We still bale a good amount of cotton in Arkansas.

First, let us praise the good that the farm bill does. It increases funding for nutrition programs for the needy at home and abroad ($30 billion a year in the United States) and for land conservation and research in renewable energy like cellulose-based ethanol, which holds promise for south and east Arkansas. It was to pay for the increased food program that the House voted to tax the profits of U.S. subsidiaries of foreign corporations.

U.S. farm programs ordinarily provide income security for the big crops — soybeans, corn, rice, tobacco, cotton — but the House bill for the first time adds a measure of fairness for specialty produce: $1.6 billion for fruit and vegetable growers. The bill authorizes a permanent disaster program. American growers and perhaps consumers as well will welcome the mandatory labeling of the country of origin on food products sold in the United States. And — good news for a few east Arkansas farmers — it will finally settle claims of racial discrimination by black farmers against the Agriculture Department, an enduring disgrace.

For these measures and for one other — shutting down subsidy payments when a farmer earns more than $1 million a year — the bill is entitled to be called reform. The House killed a tougher measure, which put the subsidy ceiling at profits of $250,000 a year rather than $1 million, and the Senate may yet do better.

Tom Harkin, D.-Iowa, the liberal Corn-Belt senator, proposes that the current guaranteed-subsidy program, which encourages overproduction and is so costly to the taxpayer, be replaced by crop insurance and other steps that would protect farmers against disasters and catastrophic price swings: help from the American taxpayer only when the farmer really needs it, and not when torrid demand and crop prices already guarantee small fortunes.

Good work, House. Senate, give us better.