A number of members of Congress have celebrated this week's passage of the $290 billion farm bill as a great victory for bipartisanship in Washington. If this is what bipartisanship looks like, maybe we should hope for a return to gridlock.
While their constituents are struggling to pay grocery bills, elected representatives in the House and Senate have increased total subsidies for farmers, many of whom are benefiting from rising crop prices. Farm income is expected to reach a record high of $92.3 billion this year, making it difficult to feel sorry for farmers.
Most disappointing was the lack of a complete overhaul of the system that provides income subsidies to well-off farmers. The Bush administration initially took the right stand, proposing to eliminate any subsidy payments for farmers who make more than $200,000 in annual gross income. It later indicated that it could live with a $500,000 limit. However, the bill passed by the House and Senate embraces farm incomes of up to $750,000 and nonfarm income of $500,000 for individuals. Get married, and you can make more than $1.5 million a year in farm income or $1 million in nonfarm income and still receive federal subsidies. "Farmer Wants a Wife," indeed.
A majority of House Republicans broke from the White House despite the president's veto threat, and the Senate passed the bill Thursday in an 81-15 vote, making an override certain. That a veto-proof majority in both houses supported the bill is testament to the power of the agricultural lobby, especially in an election year. And remember that the five-year bill includes a $10 billion boost for nutrition programs.
The farm bill is that rare piece of legislation that means as much to urban centers as it does to rural areas. Minnesota's interests were largely protected. State farmers would continue to collect about $300 million a year in direct-payment subsidies -- the benefits paid without any regard for crop prices. Crop subsidies, which prop up farmers when prices fall, would continue.
U.S. sugar producers would get some protection from imports, which will be well-received by the state's sugar-beet farmers. The legislation also tries to encourage the move from corn-based to cellulosic ethanol. And the state would benefit from increased funding for school food programs and organic farming.
All of this left several key members of the Minnesota delegation talking about the value of compromise. Republican Sen. Norm Coleman said the bill was important for the state. Democratic Sen. Amy Klobuchar said the payment limits represented a "landmark step'' toward reform. But Republican Rep. Jim Ramstad, who opposed the bill, effectively summed up the missed opportunity: "Congress should not force hard-working taxpayers to subsidize millionaire farmers.'' No, it shouldn't.