Senate Takes Fresh View of Farm Bill

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The farm bill passed in the House may bear little resemblance to the version that is now shaping up in the Senate. And there's a possibility of a presidential veto, too.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

And let's pick up that farm bill as it heads for the Senate because that is one of many obstacles between this bill and passage.

NPR's Adam Davidson is following the story. And Adam, what's going to happen when Senators get their hands on this thing?

ADAM DAVIDSON: Well, I think one of two things. There's either going to be a principled battle over real, deep economic issues, or there's going to be a massive money grab after this huge pork sandwich that the farm bill represents. It represents both things.

There was a huge effort to reform, as we just heard, in the House. The reformers lost and the more traditional farm subsidy payment system won. So the Senate is probably not going to go back to square one and try and defeat this subsidy system.

But you have Tom Harkin, senator from Iowa, big ag state, running the Agricultural Committee. He is very concerned with environmental money. He wants a lot more environmentalist issues addressed in the farm bill; feels like many environmentalists, that the farm bill hurts the environment.

And then you have Senator Dick Lugar going against his state, Indiana, an ag state, representing the fiscal conservative side, saying this is just a big waste of money. This is subsidizing mega business, as we just heard. Two-thirds of the money goes to the richest 10 percent of farmers. He's going to want to see a lot less money in the farm bill.

INSKEEP: Oh, but wait a minute. You're saying that it sounds like senators are going to keep those subsidies and maybe add more stuff to it rather than subtract?

DAVIDSON: That is certainly a real possibility. You're going to have a huge -you have this principled group. You have environmentalists and anti-poverty activists and global justice activists along - this left-wing group, along with right-wing fiscal conservatives, united to defeat the farm bill in the House. But what could happen in the Senate is each of those groups will break apart, that coalition will collapse and each group will just go after money for their own pet projects.

INSKEEP: Okay. So if this gets through the Senate, it then goes to the White House where the president has threatened a veto.

DAVIDSON: Yeah, there's a couple issues for the president here. One is he endorsed the 2002 farm bill because he thought that was the best way to keep Republicans from farm states in office. But he lost a lot of face among the Republican fiscal conservative base. They just hate the farm bill, and they're screaming at him don't do it again. And then there's a big issue in the farm bill; it has this complex thing where it taxes international companies that invest in the U.S. And the White House is saying hey, wait a second. We want international companies to invest in the U.S. We don't want to give them a reason to go somewhere else.

INSKEEP: Well, let's talk about other obstacles. Have to mention that this is a global business, Americans export and import so much food and other countries don't seem to like this farm bill very much.

DAVIDSON: Yeah, it's funny. You know, Americans who aren't farmers probably don't think about or talk about the farm bill very much. But, you know, a lot of Brazil, India, much of Africa, this is - when you think of America, there's a lot of people who think immediately, oh, that damn farm bill. That darn farm bill, excuse me.

They're very upset about how the U.S. subsidizes wealthy farmers. They're also upset about how Europe does it, and how Japan does it, how Korea does it, but how rich countries subsidize rich farmers at the expense of poor farmers in poor countries. The feeling is the subsidies encourage overproduction, which lowers the price of basic goods like cotton and wheat, et cetera, which hurt poor farmers in other countries. They actually do have real power in this. Brazil just last week won a major victory in the World Trade Organization over U.S. cotton subsidies. Basically, the last - the court of final resort for world trade issues ruled that U.S. cotton subsidies are illegal and said Brazil can put huge tariffs - $4 billion of tariffs - on U.S. goods.

INSKEEP: Although, very briefly, even though we're talking about a global business where people think globally, is it fair to say that lawmakers, when they vote, are going to act locally?

DAVIDSON: Yeah. Two-thirds of the money of the many tens of billions of dollars go to just 30 congressional districts. So those 30 congressmen, this is their job: Get this thing passed. And they have worked for five years to get this thing passed. All the other people who are against the farm bill, this is not their number one issue. This is usually their third issue or their eighth issue. And so, all that energy might mean that the thing does get passed.

INSKEEP: Okay, that's NPR's Adam Davidson giving us an education on some of the obstacles still faced by the farm bill.

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