Month after month, House Republicans promised to save taxpayers millions by cutting wasteful subsidies paid to farmers -- whether or not they needed the money or even planted a crop. Instead of living up to their word, they're taking a five-week recess without considering the farm bill adopted by the House Agriculture Committee in mid-July.
Farm bills are generally considered every five years, and the 2008 bill is set to expire Sept. 30. The U.S. Senate passed a bipartisan bill by a vote of 64-35 in June that cuts $23 billion in wasteful subsidies to farmers over the next decade; the House committee's version slashes $35 billion. But House Republicans haven't made the bill a priority and are widely divided on spending cuts.
They're also unwilling to compromise with Democrats to bring about the long-term policy reforms that a new farm bill needs. Instead, the House passed a bloated, $383 million, standalone stopgap disaster bill to assist only some livestock producers affected by the drought, despite outcry from rural lawmakers who argued that a farm bill would better aid farmers and ranchers overall. To fund the bill, the lawmakers took a huge chunk from conservation efforts.
Disgusted senators said they would not rush to consider an aid bill that only helped selected producers. It's clear that House Republicans are using the drought as a wedge to dodge the farm bill. The stopgap measure merely gives these vacationing lawmakers a rhetorical tool to pay lip service to their constituents about assisting farmers.
Minnesota Rep. Collin Peterson, the ranking Democrat on the House Agriculture Committee, remained a forceful critic of the intransigence. He displayed strong leadership in helping to shoot down an outrageous one-year farm bill extension proposal that would have killed any chance of policy reforms. "Congress should not be playing politics with the rural economy," he said.
This is not to say that the proposed farm bills don't need work. The Senate's version throws too much money at crop insurance. The House committee's version cuts too much from food and nutrition programs for low-income Americans. Both bills are heavy-handed about conservation. But it's our hope that the legislation would be made better in bipartisan negotiations between the House and Senate.
The fault for the farm bill mess to date lies squarely on the shoulders of House Republicans, who are so badly divided that they've stonewalled legislation America needs. We've seen this dysfunction in the House before -- with the payroll tax credit extension, as well as with last year's budget battle.
Fortunately, some Senate and House lawmakers are working mightily to make sure the farm bill doesn't die. That's a good sign, but public pressure also will be needed to force the House's hand.
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