By Cat Lazaroff
WASHINGTON, DC, April 29, 2002 (ENS) - A House Senate conference committee has approved sweeping new farm legislation that promises billions of dollars in subsidies to some of the nation's largest crop growing conglomerates. The $100 billion bill, which was condemned as pork barrel legislation by some groups, won some praise for including about $17 billion in conservation programs.
On Friday, Senate leaders dropped a series of commodity and conservation reforms that they had previously approved, ending a six year Congressional battle to gradually reduce federal supports for U.S. farmers. The final bill negotiated by the House and Senate would increase subsidy payments to the largest producers of certain crops by almost $50 billion over the next 10 years.
Most of the extra funds will go to a handful of the biggest corn, cotton, rice and wheat farmers in just 10 states.
But some conservation groups said the bill represents a major loss for taxpayers and the environment.
"This bill sticks taxpayers with the tab for cleaning out the agribusiness outhouse," said Ken Cook, president of the Environmental Working Group (EWG). "If taxpayers think giant corporate hog farms stink, wait'll they get a whiff of this bill," he added.
Last November, EWG published an online database of millions of government records of farm subsidy payments, obtained through Freedom of Information Act requests. The database, which showed a wide disparity between the vast sums awarded to large corporate farms and absentee landowners, and the relatively paltry sum available to small family farms, raised a furor in Congress and prompted news stories and editorials in newspapers across the country.
In response, first the Senate and then the House added limits on subsidy payments to their farm bills. The revised bills redirected the savings to support farmland conservation programs and other measures that directly benefit smaller farmers.
But over the past two months of negotiations, Congress has gradually stripped those provisions from the farm legislation.
The final version of the bill agreed to on Friday would triple federal subsidies to large hog and chicken farms, often referred to as factory farms.
"The list of lost reforms goes on and on. We haven't seen this many caves since they cancelled the Flintstones," said Cook. "The agendas of the two Agriculture Committee chairmen now seem indistinguishable."
Though the full House and Senate must still approve the conference committee's compromise, major changes are rarely made to bills that have already passed through the committee.
The bill would replace the 1996 Freedom to Farm Act, legislation that sought to cut most federal agricultural subsidies and let market pressures set commodity prices. The measure was also supposed to help keep smaller farmers in business.
But during the late 1990s, agricultural lobbyists and Congress members from major farming states won billions of dollars in emergency bailouts as commodity prices plummeted amid growing supplies. Hundreds of small farms were bought up by large corporations that were propped up by subsidies.
In 2001, the federal government handed out the record sum of $20 billion to farmers, even as the number of full time commercial farmers continued to drop.
The Bush administration has said it supports ending the subsidy programs, denouncing an early House version of the bill that increased such payments. Last September, Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman released a new, long term farm policy, emphasizing conservation and environmental protection and calling for reductions in federal subsidies for large farming operations.
"Many objectionable provisions have been eliminated that we believe would not have been in the best interests of America's farmers and ranchers," Veneman said, adding that "while details still need to be completed, the agreement appears to include more market oriented and rebalanced loan rates as well as increased emphasis on conservation programs for working lands."
The Congressional Budget Office has yet to review the bill to determine whether it will fit into this year's projected budget.