Hush money, Part 2

October 31, 2007

Much like the House before it, the Senate has included a generous infusion of new money to help restore the Chesapeake Bay; it's a sweetener to attract support for an otherwise objectionable farm bill. But lawmakers from Maryland and the rest of the bay watershed are not confronted with a take-it-or-leave-it decision. They should join with colleagues determined to pare back outdated and unnecessary crop subsidies when the measure comes to the Senate floor next week.

Scaling back a program that gives all its benefits to one-third of farmers, leaving the rest with nothing, might also yield a bit more for conservation programs to benefit the bay - a win-win for Maryland.

When last we left our story, the Senate Agriculture Committee was having trouble matching a House proposal aimed at reducing the impact of polluting fertilizer on the bay because so much Senate money was going to encourage farmers to grow crops such as corn that require heavy use of fertilizers.

The committee ultimately found $165 million over five years to set aside specifically for the bay and about $46 million more that would be the bay's share of other conservation efforts. That's far less than the $504 million for the Chesapeake approved by the House, but still more than Congress has ever before directed to the bay cleanup.

The rest of the Senate farm bill, though, is disappointing. Direct payments will continue to farmers of a few major crops even when prices are high - as most are today. No limit has been placed on the income of farmers who benefit from taxpayer largess. And very little of the $288 billion total will go toward land and water conservation.

A major reform effort is expected to be led on the Senate floor by Richard G. Lugar, an Indiana Republican and until this year the longtime Agriculture Committee chairman, who will try to replace the $5 billion in direct subsidies with a crop insurance program that would be available to all farmers and pay benefits only when they lose money.

Though regarded as an uphill proposition, the Lugar proposal deserves support. It's foolish to continue a program that benefits so few at the expense of the many, and works at cross purposes with conservation.

Once the Senate bill is approved, another battle will begin as negotiators from the two chambers work to hammer out their differences. Farm lobbyists may again try to make bay money a bargaining chip. They shouldn't be allowed to get away with it.

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