The House is expected to vote Friday on a far-reaching farm bill. The measure sets policy for crop subsidies, food stamps and many other programs over the next five years. Critics say the bill doesn't do enough to cut those subsidies at a time of near record crop prices, and the measure has drawn a veto threat from the White House.
Republicans are also angry at a last minute tax hike affecting foreign owned companies that democrats inserted into the measure to fund increases in food stamps.
The farm bill is one of the rare issues in Congress that most of the time engenders wide bipartisan support. Farm state lawmakers from both parties line up behind the payments to farmers in the form of crop subsidies and insurance programs. And that appeared to be the case this year as well — until Thursday. That's when Democrats said that in order to fund a $4 billion expansion of nutrition programs, including food stamps, they would close a tax loophole affecting foreign companies that have U.S. subsidiaries in places like Bermuda.
Republicans, like Rep. Deborah Pryce of Ohio, cried foul:
"In the 11th hour, Democrat leaders blindsided America with the news of how they were going to pay for this bill by putting 5 million American jobs at risk," Pryce charged.
Pryce mentioned the Honda plant in Ohio that she said would be affected by the tax increase. Rep. Donald Manzullo, a Republican from Illinois, mentioned a plant in his district:
"Nissan Forklift in Marengo, Ill., would be hit with a 10-percent increase," Manzullo said. "They're not based in Bermuda. These are common American people — the ones who get up at the crack of dawn. They represent the manufacturing people of this country and the Democrats are hurting them. Don't hurt my workers."
Democrats countered that Republicans were exaggerating the tax's impact, and noted that the Bush administration had itself called for the loophole to be closed. Rep. Earl Pomeroy, a Democrat from North Dakota, questioned the political judgment of House Republicans who oppose closing the loophole:
"They'd rather protect the tax cheaters in Bermuda than help the farmers of this country," Pomeroy said. "Man, I'd hate to go home and try to sell that one, because if that's not priorities tipped on their head, I don't know what is."
The price tag of the farm bill approaches $290 billion over five years, and Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns, in announcing the White House veto threat, said it misses a major opportunity. While the bill does end subsidies for farmers earning more than $1 million, critics say it stops well short of real reforms.
The White House wanted subsidies cut off at $200,000. Rep. Ron Kind, a Democrat from Wisconsin, offered an amendment to end subsidies to farmers earning more than $250,000 a year:
"Simply put, let's help farmers when they need it," Kind said. "Let's not when they don't. The committee bill before us, however, will continue giving taxpayer subsidies with an adjusted gross income of $1 million. It will spend $26 billion in subsidies to commodity producers who are receiving at-or-near-record commodity prices."
Kind's amendment was handily defeated, 309 to 117.
The farm bill represents a delicate political balance for House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, the California Democrat, who had to weigh the needs of farm-state freshmen Democrats against promises for reform.
The bill does contain a few changes to existing policy, including $1.8 billion in subsidies to growers of fruits and vegetables, and a requirement that meat be labeled with its country of origin. Rep. Rosa DeLauro, a Connecticut Democrat, said that was something even non farm state lawmakers could support:
"This bill represents a victory for consumers and a positive first step toward improving food safety in the United States," she said, citing help for "crops that are so crucial nationwide from New England to California" and "an agreement on country-of-origin labeling."
Even if it does win passage today, the future of the House farm bill is unclear. The Senate is likely to go its own way when its gets around to writing its version of the legislation, when Congress returns from its summer recess in September.