A Bill Democrats Should Like
The Bush administration’s new farm bill, one of the more sensible pieces of legislation to emerge from this administration in quite a while, faces its first big Congressional test this week. The House Budget Committee will vote on a budget resolution that, while non-binding, establishes spending priorities and sends a powerful signal to the authorizing committees about where the House leadership thinks the money ought to go.
In the case of the farm bill, the Bush administration has already made its own preferences crystal clear. It proposes a strict cap on payments to individual farmers as part of a larger effort to hold down traditional subsidies. It seeks to help smaller and younger farmers and poor rural communities.
And it includes the most generous conservation program ever offered by this administration: increasing spending by $7.8 billion over 10 years on land conservation and investing an additional $1 billion a year in a bold new program to develop renewable fuels other than corn ethanol from farm crops.
All this represents a significant break from past farm bills, which have traditionally provided heavy subsidies for big growers of corn, wheat, soybeans, cotton and rice who are concentrated in a handful of states. Half of all farm spending, which amounts to about $12.5 billion annually, now flows to just 22 Congressional districts.
The problems with this system are legion. At home, it drives small farmers out of business and compromises the environment. Abroad, it penalizes third-world farmers and jeopardizes trade talks.
John Spratt, the South Carolina Democrat who runs the Budget Committee, will be under heavy pressure from the farm lobby to preserve the old system. But this is one administration program that the Democrats can and should support. Mr. Spratt and other House leaders would be doing the environment, small farmers and the cause of free trade a great favor by embracing it.