'Freedom to Farm' bill approved by the House Critic says GOP 'stabbed consumers in the back'

March 01, 1996|By KNIGHT-RIDDER NEWS SERVICE

WASHINGTON -- The House approved a sweeping farm bill yesterday designed to grant more flexibility to farmers, aid the rural environment and keep food prices generally stable for consumers.

Dubbed the "Freedom to Farm" plan, the seven-year bill would scrap the vast system of Depression-era crop subsidies for grain and cotton farmers. In its place, the bill guarantees those farmers fixed payments that slowly decline over the next seven years. The subsidies would cost $35 billion, much less than farm programs over the past five years.

The measure passed 270-155, as House members were persuaded it was a step toward a freer market, lower spending and less government. But it was only a step; in two extremely close votes, the House retained controversial subsidies for sugar and peanuts, which critics say inflate food prices.

"We have changed the farm-program world," said House Agriculture Committee Chairman Pat Roberts, Kansas Republican.

Countered Mark Epstein with the consumer group Public Voice: "The Republican leadership stabbed consumers in the back. Special interests carried the day and consumers got rolled."

The House did kill a controversial dairy plan to add powdered milk to every carton of milk. Critics said the requirement would raise consumer prices between 20 and 40 cents a gallon.

And it firmed up the bill's environmental provisions, after Democrats and some Republicans made it plain the bill would die without stronger soil and water conservation provisions. Florida lawmakers also got $200 million added for the purchase of 52,000 acres in the Florida Everglades.

Despite the large vote, some parts of the bill remain controversial. Democrats were appalled that farmers could still receive government checks, even if they didn't plant anything. Said Rep. Barney Frank, a Massachusetts Democrat, "It ought to be called Freedom from Farming."

The bill still has a few remaining hurdles before it becomes law. House and Senate negotiators must iron out any differences before it goes to President Clinton. That was expected to take about a week. But any further delays become critical, as spring planting is fast approaching and farmers need to know what the farm laws will be.

Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman said he dislikes some parts of the bill. He said negotiators "must make improvements in both the Senate and the House bill before I can recommend the president sign the legislation."

Under the Freedom to Farm concept, the Agriculture Department would be barred from telling farmers how much farmland to idle or what crops they must plant to qualify for subsidies. That would end the government's 60-year practice of trying to boost crop prices by restricting the supply, which doesn't work well in a global market.

Freedom to Farm also alters the long-standing deal between farmers, consumers and the federal government. In times of high crop prices -- like today -- Mr. Roberts' plan actually guarantees farmers more money. But when crop prices are moderate or low, farmers will collect less -- maybe far less. It's the fear of those bad times that most worries the Democrats.

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