Close doesn't count

December 18, 2007

In the Senate last week, history was in the making, and almost a moment to be proud of. A majority of senators voted to shrink federal crop subsidies to wealthy farmers and landowners, and well over a third favored scrapping the subsidy program altogether.

But close only counts in horseshoes. Those long-overdue reforms, which would have put some of the savings into nutrition and conservation programs, needed a three-fifths majority to pass. Corporate farms and land conglomerates still have enough support among lawmakers from the South and Midwest to keep the agri-welfare system intact for another five years.

Perhaps it's ungracious to complain. Maryland comes in for a nice chunk of change to improve water quality in the Chesapeake Bay through programs included in the Senate version of the farm bill. The more than $200 million over five years falls far short of the $504 million for the bay watershed approved by the House in its version of the legislation, but it provides a nice floor for negotiations between the two chambers.

Maryland, its farmers and most of the country would have fared better, though, if the crop subsidy reforms had gone through. Both Maryland senators, Barbara A. Mikulski and Benjamin L. Cardin, were among the ranks of would-be reformers.

This latest farm bill update continues a practice that awards more than two-thirds of the crop subsidies to one-third of farmers, who are generally not in small-plot states such as Maryland.

Most of the measure's $286 billion cost is devoted to food stamps and other nutrition programs, which have been improved in the Senate bill to raise monthly minimum benefits and to encourage healthier diets, including fruit and vegetables. And for the first time, fruit and vegetable farmers will also be eligible for subsidies.

These improvements, though, don't justify continuing payments to farmers regardless of income at a time when crop prices are high. President Bush proposed to limit payments to farmers with annual incomes no higher than $200,000; the House set a limit of $1 million. The Senate mustered a ceiling of $750,000, but only for part-time farmers or absentee landlords, and not until 2010.

If the final version of the farm bill fails to make more progress toward subsidy reform, Mr. Bush has threatened a veto. But people in need of the emergency food aid and the boost in their food stamp buying power promised by the House and Senate versions of the legislation shouldn't be caught in the middle of this dispute.

The White House and congressional negotiators should commit themselves to speedy agreement on a bolder path toward reform well before spring planting season.

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