Washington, D.C. The House last week approved a major expansion
of federal farm supports, defying the White House and repudiating
the free-market policy enacted by Republicans in 1996.
The bill passed, however, without an amendment proposed last
week that would have significantly increased funding for
conservation programs, including the Conservation Reserve Program
(CRP) and the Wetlands Reserve Program (WRP).
“The amendment was introduced, but it failed barely,” said Tom
Landwehr, state conservation director for Ducks Unlimited in
Minnesota. “There was a lot of support for it.”
The Bush administration has stopped short of threatening a veto,
but said the cash in the $170 billion, 10-year package will benefit
big farms that need it the least, while promoting more
price-depressing surpluses of crops.
Authors of the legislation, approved 291-120, say the existing
financial safety net for farmers has proved inadequate.
“The 1996 farm bill is an utter failure,” said Texas Rep.
Charles Stenholm, senior Democrat on the House Agriculture
The “Freedom to Farm” law was supposed to wean farmers from
government supports, but when grain prices collapsed in 1998,
lawmakers responded with a series of multi-billion dollar bailouts
that discouraged growers from cutting production.
The House bill would boost commodity programs by $49 billion, or
about 63 percent, over existing supports, with the bulk of the
money going to the grain, cotton and soybean farmers that have
traditionally dominated farm programs.
Conservation spending would grow by $16 billion, or about 75
percent over current programs, with much of those benefits going to
livestock operations and fruit and vegetable growers.
Farmers have “outmaneuvered nearly every other interest group in
terms of capturing more federal dollars. It’s mind-boggling how
effective they are,” said Bruce Babcock, an agricultural economist
at Iowa State University.
An amendment that would’ve taken land out of production, and
paid farmers to create better habitat, was defeated 226-200 the day
before the farm bill passed. The amendment sought to expand
“set-aside” programs to levels encouraged by a consortium of
The cap for CRP, under the amendment, would have increased to 45
million acres. Instead, it increases from about 36 million acres to
about 39 million.
An additional 150,000 acres can be enrolled in WRP, instead of
the 250,000 acres the amendment would’ve authorized.
The Wildlife Habitat Incentives Program (WHIP) will be eligible
for $25 million annually. Under the proposed amendment WHIP funding
would begin at $200 million and eventually would have increased to
$500 million annually.
The final program for which the conservation groups lobbied was
the Grassland Reserve Program, a new conservation program this
year. The amendment would’ve allowed 3 million acres of set-aside
for the program. Instead, the program will be limited to 2 million
Landwehr said the amendment could have dramatically increased
habitat for Minnesota wildlife. Of Minnesota’s eight House
representatives, four voted for the amendment.
“That was surprising,” he said. “You’d think in a state like
Minnesota, with a strong interest in hunting and fishing, there
would’ve been strong support for the amendment. What was more
surprising is that it was rural legislators who were against
Voting in favor of the amendment were Democrats Betty McCollum,
James Oberstar, and Bill Luther, along with Republican Jim Ramstad.
Voting against the bill were Democrats Collin Peterson and Martin
Sabo, and Republicans Gil Gutknecht and Mark Kennedy.
The Senate Agriculture Committee is expected to start work on
its version of the bill later this month.
“This now is the real news, that the Senate has indicated it may
move on this in a very short time frame,” said Dave Nomsen, of
Pheasants Forever. “I think there’s a better than 50-50 chance of
something coming from them this year.”
The administration unsuccessfully appealed to the House to delay
work on the legislation, saying it was too soon after the Sept. 11
attacks to commit as much $170 billion to farm programs. By
increasing subsidies, the bill also would undermine U.S. efforts to
lower foreign trade barriers, the White House says.
The administration wants more money put into conservation
programs that reward farmers for cutting back on runoff of
fertilizer and animal waste.
With the federal budget surplus vanishing, farm lobbyists are
pushing the Senate to work as quickly as possible. The House bill
uses $73.5 billion in surplus funds that were set aside in a
congressional budget agreement this spring before the economy went
The Senate committee’s chairman, Iowa Democrat Tom Harkin, wants
to steer more money into conservation programs. But his home state
is the biggest beneficiary of existing programs, and the committee
is dominated by senators representing midwestern and southern
states that are major producers of subsidized crops.
Landwehr hopes the Senate incorporates language that meets the
conservation groups’ preferred levels of funding for the programs,
giving a conference committee the chance to include those
“It’s hard to overstate how important this is for hunting in
Minnesota, especially the CRP land,” Landwehr said. “I hope people
realize this if for a long time this legislation is in place for 10
Nomsen said constituents should contact their senators soon.
“Given the uncertainty of what the Senate bill will look like,
we need to have input into those decisions right now,” he said.
Minnesota’s senators can be reached at the following phone
Mark Dayton – (202) 224-3244
Paul Wellstone – (202) 224-5641
The AP contributed to this story.