Farm Bill: Beauty for Biz, Beast for Environment?

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The farm bill is up for debate in the House of Representatives. Although environmentalists, advocates for the poor and economic conservatives have joined forces, most think their battle will be lost because large agribusiness interests are just too strong.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

Activists from the left and right have spent years preparing for today's big battle in the House of Representatives. They want to defeat the farm bill, legislation that gives big subsidies to some U.S. farmers. Environmentalists, advocates for the poor and economic conservatives have joined forces, but most think their battle will be lost because the large agribusiness interests are just too strong.

NPR's Adam Davidson reports.

ADAM DAVIDSON: Scott Faber, a lobbyist for Environmental Defense, has been working fulltime every day on nothing but defeating the farm bill for a long time.

Mr. SCOTT FABER (Lobbyist, Environmental Defense): Probably about five years.

DAVIDSON: Farm bill reform has been your primary activity.

Mr. FABER: Yeah. Yeah, it has.

DAVIDSON: And not just him, Faber has 35 staffers working behind the scenes. He's the public face.

Mr. FABER: Hey, how are you doing?

Unidentified Man: Good.

DAVIDSON: He is spending these days lobbying members of the House, or, more often, their staff. Right now he's talking to Rachel Kondor and Chris Kaumo from Arizona Democrat Raul Grijalva's office.

Mr. FABER: Progressives are angry that there is not enough funding for nutrition and conservation. Fiscal conservatives are angry that we're continuing to provide unlimited subsidies to the wealthiest farmers in America.

Ms. RACHEL KONDOR (Senior Legislative Assistant to Rep. Grijalva): So tell us a little bit about what you anticipate on the floor.

Mr. FABER: You know, I mean, it will come down to members like your boss. And so you're leaning yes? Undecided?

Mr. CHRIS KAUMO (Legislative Director to Rep. Grijalva): Still analyzing the position.

DAVIDSON: The farm bill has come up every five years or so since the Great Depression, and it does something that doesn't happen with any other industry. Congress decides to give billions of dollars to farmers and other agricultural businesses. Supporters say farmers need it; agriculture is too risky and many farms would shut down without government support.

But critics say two thirds of the money goes to the richest 10 percent of farmers, and almost all of it goes to a handful of crops like corn, cotton and soybeans.

So it's always been clear who supports the bill. Farmers do, especially those farmers who get subsidies. But who's against it? Well, environmentalists say it promotes overproduction, which means too much fertilizer and pesticides.

Another man on Capitol Hill lobbying this week: Reverend David Beckman, a Lutheran minister who runs Bread for the World, an anti-hunger religious activist group.

Reverend DAVID BECKMAN (President, Bread for the World): Reforming the farm bill is Bread for the World's highest priority this year. We think it's the piece of legislation that will do more good for hungry people than anything else Congress is doing this year.

DAVIDSON: Beckman says U.S. overproduction drives down crop prices, which hurts poor farmers in Africa and Latin America. And by giving money to rich American farmers, the farm bill does little for the poor here.

Mr. DEMIAN MOORE (Senior Policy Analyst, Taxpayers for Common Sense): It's completely antithetical to anybody with a free trade or free market philosophy.

DAVIDSON: That's Demian Moore standing in a Capitol Hill hallway with Beckman. Moore is a lobbyist for Taxpayers for Common Sense. He's a fiscal conservative. Reverend Beckman usually rejects Moore's pro-market views, except with the farm bill.

Rev. BECKMAN: That's a case in which the market is a lot kinder to poor people than badly spent government money.

DAVIDSON: Dozens of activist groups, left and right, are now part of the coalition, each lobbying their own congressional allies with visits, faxes, e-mails, phone calls. And for all of this most political observers say there's a good chance they'll lose today's vote. Why? Because the farm lobbyists are even stronger.

Take Jon Doggett, head lobbyist for the corn industry.

Mr. JON DOGGETT (Vice President of Public Policy, National Corn Growers Association): We have five registered lobbyists - myself and four others. Last week, we had probably 200, 250 growers in town for four days.

DAVIDSON: The cotton industry, the sugar lobby, soybeans - they all have massive political campaigns designed to convince Congress to support the farm bill. They say farmers and American food security can't exist without it. They each give millions of dollars to those in Congress who support farm subsidies, and they let representatives from agricultural districts know that this is the one issue that will determine how farmers vote in 2008.

And that's not a threat the others side can make. Congress knows that aside from some political activists, very few non-farmers know or care about the farm bill at all.

Adam Davidson, NPR News.

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