We didn't really need to be reminded, but the U.S. Senate has shown once again that money often stands in the way of sensible progress in Washington.
After a six-week impasse, the Senate passed a $286 billion farm bill that makes only minor changes to the bloated agricultural subsidy system that rewards rich farmers for being farmers. The Senate rejected an amendment proposed by Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., that would have stopped subsidy payments to full-time farmers with adjusted incomes of $750,000, rather than the current cutoff of $2.5 million. The amendment, which needed 60 votes for passage, was backed by a 49-48 majority. A separate amendment that would have capped the payments themselves at $250,000, down from $360,000 now, also died in the Senate.
That made it an early Christmas for lots of wealthy farmers and their elected representatives, including Sen. Blanche Lincoln, D-Ark. Lincoln threatened to hold up the entire bill unless Democratic leaders agreed to the 60-vote requirement. Arkansas is just one of the big agricultural states whose farmers will get a nice cut of the estimated $20 billion in federal subsidies this year. Even with high crop prices and increasing land values, two-thirds of the windfall will go to the wealthiest 10 percent of the country's farms.
Although major changes in the subsidies system appear unlikely, there's another chance for Congress to take a crack at the income and payment limits. In January the Senate bill will have to be reconciled with the House version, and President Bush has proposed significant subsidy caps.
A key player in that work will be Rep. Collin Peterson, D-Minn., chairman of the House Agriculture Committee. Peterson said he would like to see some progress on subsidies, and he credited Klobuchar for creating some momentum with her amendment. But Peterson's optimism was guarded at best. "The administration still continues to push their ideas, but there's no support in the Congress for it,'' he said.
It looks like the final version of the bill will improve the food stamp program and boost childhood nutrition by providing free fruit and vegetables to at least 100 public schools and Indian reservations. There's also funding for biofuels research and programs that would reduce rural soil and water pollution, as well as additional funding for conservation programs. That's real progress -- the kind of progress we wish we were seeing on subsidies.
"It would be good if someday we get to the point where we don't need farm payments,'' Peterson said. That day may be years off, but next month House and Senate conferees will have another chance to at least put stricter limits on subsidies for farmers who don't need a taxpayer bailout to make a living.
Until then, if you're a wealthy farmer in America, it's a wonderful life.