Battling Out the Farm Bill Members of Congress continue to debate details of the latest farm bill, which covers much more than just farming. Sen. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa) discusses whether there should be a cap on aid to large growers.
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Battling Out the Farm Bill

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Battling Out the Farm Bill

Battling Out the Farm Bill

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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From the studios of NPR West this is Day to Day, I'm Alex Chadwick.


And I'm Madeleine Brand. Coming up, in Chicago what Reverend Jeremiah Wright's parishioners think of his recent media blitz.

CHADWICK: First, we're going to Washington for a story that is getting some attention at last, although a lot of people don't follow up on this.

BRAND: Yes, it's because it has the name Farm Bill.

CHADWICK: Farm Bill.

BRAND: Not the most scintillating of headlines.

CHADWICK: Not the most scintillating. This is being debated in Congress this week and it is getting attention because it's a lot of money. Three hundred billion dollars over the next five years and most of this is not money, taxpayer money that is going to poor people, most of goes to people who are very well off.

BRAND: And some unusual characters like David Letterman, Scottie Pippin the NBA star.

CHADWICK: Microsoft founder Paul Allen. But they all own land that has some agriculture going on it, they all get money from the Federal Government. That's why President Bush was talking about this at his press conference yesterday.

President GEORGE BUSH: America's farm economy is thriving. The value of farmland is skyrocketing and this is the right time to reform our nation's farm policies by reducing unnecessary subsidies. It's not the time to ask American families who are already paying more in the checkout line to pay more in subsidies for wealthy farmers.

CHADWICK: Joining us for the latest on the farm negotiations, Michael Grunwald a senior correspondent for Time Magazine, wrote a big piece on this issue a few months ago. Michael, where do things stand now? It looks as though something is going to happen.

Mr. MICHAEL GRUNWALD (Senior Correspondent, Time Magazine): Yeah, the negotiators in the House and the Senate seem to have at least a framework for a deal. The problem is that the Bush administration has said that this is unacceptable, that it's still bloated, and they are throwing too much money at millionaire farmers who are having their best years ever. We're not quite there yet.

CHADWICK: There's a cap that they're talking about. There has been a discussion if someone earns more than 200,000 dollars they don't need any help from the federal government, others say that figure should be 750,000 dollars or higher. Is this it, the sticking point?

Mr. GRUNWALD: Well, it's certainly one of them. The current cap is about two and a half million, if that's even a cap - if you have a decent accountant that's pretty easy to get around it. I think there are also questions about direct payments, which are pretty much exactly what they sound like. The federal government sends money to farmers just for being farmers, and sometimes they don't even have to be farmers, they just have to own land that used to be in the farm program. And there's some question about whether it really makes sense to be sending five billion dollars to people who are having a fantastic year.

CHADWICK: As you note in your piece, almost all of this money goes not to the farmers we think as farmers, but big agribusinesses that grow a few main crops - soy, corn, wheat, sugar, cotton, rice.

Mr. GRUNWALD: Well, that's right. And these are the kind of big industrial farms that they may be owned by families, but they're also, they devour the most water and the most energy. They use the most pesticides, and these are incredibly trade-distorting subsidies as well that end up fouling our reputation abroad and really ruining our chances of negotiating trade deals that could help the other 99 percent of the economy. So they're a lot of unintended or perhaps absolutely intended consequences.

CHADWICK: Michael Grunwald of Time Magazine. Michael, we're going to come back to you after we hear from a couple of other sources on this including Senator Grassley from Iowa. Hold on, we'll be back.

BRAND: The Farm Bill comes up every five years. It covers a lot more than farming. The House version this year is 742 pages long the Senate version, it's more than twice that. With so many different elements in the mix, the bill generates plenty of lobbying and arguably a lot of campaign money. NPR's Peter Overby reports.

PETER OVERBY: The Farm Bill is most famous for its crop subsides. All sorts of them. Sugar, cotton...

Mr. ERNEST ISTOOK (Former Congressman; Distinguished Fellow, Heritage Foundation): Dried peas, lentils and chickpeas.

OVERBY: Those last three are new this year, and you heard them listed by former Congressman Ernest Istook now with the Heritage Foundation. He didn't like the federal farm programs when he was in Congress, and now he objects to them even more.

Mr. ISTOOK: With farm prices at record highs, with food prices at record highs, why do we need to be putting price subsidies like this out there at all?

OVERBY: But ag price support are just one part of the Farm Bill. There's a tax break for owners of racehorses. That seems like a sure bet. Especially since Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell is up for re-election in Kentucky. Another tax break would go to farmers who want to help protect endangered species. That one's getting whittled down. And industry money is flowing. For lawmakers on the House and Senate agriculture committees, agribusiness is naturally generous but other sectors play too. Like energy. The bill promotes not only ethanol, but other energy sources as well, including bio diesel and liquefied coal. Industry groups are opening their wallets for key congressional Democrats.

Mr. MATTHEW RICH (Center for Responsive Politics): Obviously that's because the Democrats are the ones that control the key to getting this Farm Bill passed.

OVERBY: Matthew Rich is with the Center for Responsive Politics, which analyzes the flow of campaign cash.

Mr. RICH: If you want to get something done, you need to contribute to the party that's in power, in this case now, the Democrats.

OVERBY: Which isn't to say the industry has written off the Republicans. When the Farm Bill comes to town, there's something for almost everybody. Peter Overby, NPR news, Washington.

CHADWICK: Senator Charles Grassley Republican of Iowa is on the line from Capitol Hill. He serves on the Senate Agriculture Committee. Senator Grassley, welcome back to Day to Day. We've called several agricultural state Senators and Representatives. You're the only one who'll talk to us. Thank you.

Senator CHARLES GRASSELY (Republican, Iowa): Well, I think there's still a few outstanding issues, I don't think there are really major issues, I think they can be worked out. Some of the things that I have been interested in having caps on farm income as well as non-farm income in order to disqualify or penalize people of high incomes participating in the farm program because the farm program was meant to be for medium and small size farmers.

CHADWICK: Senator, the figures that are in the bills now I believe one million dollars and 750,000 dollars. That's still a heck of a lot of money, isn't it?

SENATOR GRASSELY: It would be lower than either one of those.

CHADWICK: Well, what is it going to be? Five hundred thousand?

SENATOR GRASSELY: Well, I think better wait until it's finally put on paper before I say anything because I don't want to be misleading the public.

CHADWICK: The president said there are multi-millionaire farmers getting help from the American government and in these difficult economic times, how can you justify that? And even if you are talking about help for someone who's getting 500,000 dollars a year, that's a lot of money, isn't it?

Senator GRASSELY: You're talking to a senator who agrees with the President, and so - but I'm telling you that I'm very much in a minority group of people that are negotiating. And we're lucky to get anything on farm income limits and we're going to get a very hard cap on non-farm income, which is much higher than what I want. But I think you need to realize that these are dramatically steps forward. Hopefully they'll satisfy the president. I don't think they're going to satisfy the president. And I guess in agreeing to a compromise I'm hoping the president will sign the bill because these caps are - would not be in legislation if we just extended the existing Farm Bill for one more year.

CHADWICK: You know that all of this comes out of the Depression, an emergency provision to help farmers in trouble. Is that emergency, I mean, you know, it's 70 years on.

SENATOR GRASSELY: You've got to remember the history of agriculture, you not only had the Depression of the '30s that is famous, but you also had an agricultural depression in the '50s, you had an agriculture depression in the '80s, and we had high grain prices ten years ago like we have right now, and they're supposed to be around for five years, and they were around for five months. So, everything about agriculture is very unpredictable. But the reason we have a farm program is because we, like the Germans and the Japanese, feel that we need to make sure that we have a stable food supply because social cohesion is very important, and you know the old adage. People are only nine meals away from a revolution. If you couldn't feed your kids for three days, and you didn't know where the food was coming from, you might take almost any action to make sure that your kids got food. And so a stable food supply is very important for a stable society.

CHADWICK: Senator Charles Grassley of Iowa. You going to finish this up today, Senator?

Senator GRASSLEY: Yes.

CHADWICK: All right, thank you, sir.

Senator GRASSLEY: Goodbye.

CHADWICK: Michael Grunwald, senior correspondent for Time Magazine, is back with us. He writes about American farm policy. Michael, you've heard Senator Grassley. How does this look to you? And I'll just note that the article that you wrote about how we set farm policy, for Time Magazine, seemed like a - incensed piece of journalism. You're not happy with the way things are going.

Mr. GRUNWALD: Well, you know, the Farm Bill really is for people who get upset about, you know, the way Washington works, and the Farm Bill really is exhibit A. And it's a classic example of a very strong lobby that takes a fierce interest in a particular piece of legislation and sort of molds the legislation to suit the interest of the lobby. Not even necessarily the interest of farmers in general, but this farm lobby that's really so wildly against the sort of national interest. And it's because the average guy is not going to come to Washington to lobby for good farm policy. The farm lobby is. So, you have this really preposterous situation where we're showering money at the wealthiest farmers. You know, the small farmers who all the politicians talk about don't see a dime. And meanwhile there are just all these incredibly distorting effects on the environment, on our trade policy, on our health policy, on our foreign policy that, you know, really don't get taken into account.

CHADWICK: On this particular issue you see standing up against this two principal figures. One, the entire environmental lobbying group, which the liberals and Democrats are often associated with, and President George W. Bush.

Mr. GRUNWALD: Yeah, and I would add as well sort of anti-hunger groups, some religious groups, you know, some business groups that are pro-trade, some budget hawks who just don't like wasting money. So, you really do see a very broad coalition that stands for reform. The problem is that the really intense interest in the bill comes from the groups that have always benefited from it. And if you're a member of Congress you know that the business community, you know, the Farm Bill is not their number one priority - trying to make it more trade-friendly, trying to eliminate some of those wasteful subsidies that are making it impossible to do trade deals. But for the, you know, if you're worried about the farm lobby, this is their thing. So, you do see these kind of - I guess you could call them strange bedfellows, but it's essentially everyone but the farm lobby.

CHADWICK: Michael Grunwald, senior writer for Time Magazine. Michael, thank you.

Mr. GRUNWALD: Thanks so much.

CHADWICK: What you sow, so shall you reap, on Day to Day.

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