Big Farm Bill Passes House

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The House on Friday easily approved a $170 billion overhaul of farm programs after turning aside a bid by urban lawmakers and environmentalists to shift billions in crop subsidies into conservation programs.

The White House has sharply criticized the bill, which would reverse the 1996 "Freedom to Farm" law that was supposed to wean farmers from government supports.

"We wanted to get rid of the bad and keep the good parts, and that's what we did," said Rep. Larry Combest, R-Texas, chairman of the House Agriculture Committee.

The bill, approved 291-120, creates a new subsidy program to protect grain and cotton farmers when prices are low and resurrects supports for sheep and honey producers that were eliminated in the 1990s. Authors of the legislation say the existing financial safety net for farmers is inadequate.

"The 1996 farm bill is an utter failure," said Texas Rep. Charles Stenholm, the committee's top Democrat.

The White House this week said the subsidies would encourage overproduction and benefit farmers who need assistance the least. The administration, which stopped short of a veto threat, wants more money put into conservation programs.

"We do believe there can be additional things added into the bill to reach a broader number of people and a broader number of farmers," said Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman.

But the House defeated, 226-200, a proposal Thursday that would have moved $19 billion from planned crop supports into payments for farmers who idle farmland or take steps to curb runoff of fertilizer and animal waste.

Groups representing grain, cotton and soybean growers viewed the proposal as a major threat to their government support and had secured a pledge from Combest to shelve the bill had the amendment been approved.

The House approved an amendment moving $1 billion in crop subsidies into rural development. But the farm bill still would boost commodity programs by $49 billion, or about 63 percent, over the next 10 years. Conservation spending would grow by $16 billion, or nearly 75 percent.

The bill counts on using $73 billion in surplus funds that were set aside in a congressional budget agreement earlier this year.

The Senate Agriculture Committee is expected to start writing its version of the bill this month.

The committee's chairman, Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, along with Sen. Dick Lugar of Indiana, the senior Republican, want to boost conservation programs. Harkin is pushing a plan to make special incentive payments to farmers who improve their farming practices.

"The momentum for this kind of reform is going to build and build," said Ken Cook, president of the Environmental Working Group.

Critics of the House amendment said it would have taken too much land out of production, harming rural businesses in the process.

"We don't need the federal government controlling more land," said Rep. Tom Osborne, R-Neb.

A program that pays farmers to idle environmentally sensitive lanwould have been expanded from the current 34 million acres to 45 million acres, 5 million more than the bill allows. The amendment also would have provided up to $500 million annually — 10 times what the bill permits — to farmers near urban areas who pledge not to sell land to developers.

The House voted 239-177 Thursday against a proposed reduction in price supports for sugar. The program keeps U.S. sugar prices artificially high, raising costs for candy and food manufacturers.

The House approved 235-183 an amendment that would annually shift $100 million in crop subsidies to rural water grants and other development programs. Rep. John Peterson, R-Pa., said the money amounted to a "crumb for rural America."

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