Congress Moves Forward on Farm Bill

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On Friday, Congress may have resolved the legislative knot that is the farm bill, which governs the massive presence of the federal government in farming, food and fiber production, nutrition and even the lumber industry. It also involves one of the most complex lobbying operations in Washington.


This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. Scott Simon is away. I'm John Ydstie.

Every five years, Congress takes on the legislative knot that is the farm bill. It governs the massive presence of the federal government in farming, food and fiber production, nutrition and even the lumber industry.

Last year, the farm bill did not get done on schedule, but last night Congress may have reached a deal. Joining us to explain this is NPR congressional correspondent Brian Naylor.

First of all, Brian, what's the damage? What's this going to cost taxpayers?

BRIAN NAYLOR: Well, John, it comes in at about $300 billion over the five-year length of the farm bill - big chunk of change, lots of money.

YDSTIE: But a lot of that goes to food stamps, doesn't it?

NAYLOR: Right. In fact, about 60 percent or so of the bill is food and nutrition programs, aid to food pantries, that kind of thing. And food stamps are an entitlement, so people who qualify for them get them. And the budget adjusts to what the demand is, and so you can figure about 60 percent, maybe roughly $36 billion, is the anticipated cost for food stamps next year.

There's money, about $10 billion, to increase the money available for food stamps over the five years, and so more people will be eligible for them.

YDSTIE: But that's part of what makes it a popular bill on the floor of the House and the Senate.

NAYLOR: Right. That's what gets its support from urban lawmakers who, you know, could care less really about farm subsidies. But this is something that affects a lot of congressional districts outside of the farm states.

YDSTIE: This time around, there was a big push from the White House to pare down all of those subsidies for farmers, especially big farmers, and especially because of the high price of these crops right now. Did that happen, Brian?

NAYLOR: No, John, it did not. It did not happen.

YDSTIE: Well why didn't it happen, I guess it is the real question, isn't it?

NAYLOR: Well, because the farm lobby is very, very powerful, and farm-state senators and House members don't want to touch these programs even at a time of record crop prices, even when Americans are paying more than ever at the grocery store check-out line. Cotton and rice and wheat and corn and all of those commodities are at record levels.

In fact, they created a new subsidy, a so-called permanent disaster fund for states where, especially in the northern plains, that some critics say there shouldn't be much farming to begin with, but they tend to be more susceptible to drought.

YDSTIE: What were the final issues that kept this whole negotiation going on for so long?

NAYLOR: You know, the House leadership wanted more money for food stamps. The senators wanted more money for tax subsidies. What they finally came up with was they're going to use customs fees to support some of this new spending, and that's what the negotiations entailed for the last several months.

YDSTIE: And is this is a done deal, or will you be back next week telling us we've hit a snag?

NAYLOR: Of course, the big unknown about all of this is whether the White House is going along. As we mentioned, they've objected to some of the subsidies in the past. Whether they're going to sign off on this final bill, we don't know yet.

YDSTIE: NPR congressional correspondent Brian Naylor. Thanks very much, Brian.

NAYLOR: Thank you, John.

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