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Fiscal Hawks Eye Farm Bill

When the nearly $300 billion farm bill comes up for a vote today in the House, the key groups to watch will be members of the fiscal conservative wings of each party — Blue Dog Democrats and the Republican Study Committee.

For President Bush to have any chance of defeating the farm bill and sustaining his promised veto, the chamber’s fiscal conservatives will in many cases have to choose their budget principles over the interests of their districts.

A few Members of each group have sharply criticized the farm bill as a porked-up giveaway to special interests that includes a few minor stabs at reform but continues massive farm subsidies, even to millionaires, at a time of record farm profits. But many Members of each group represent rural districts that are among the biggest recipients of farm bill largess.

The issue is complicated by the fact that some of the same Blue Dogs who are balking at adding billions in education benefits for GIs without offsets in a show of fiscal hawkishness would be in the position of approving billions in budgetary gimmickry if they back the farm bill.

And on the GOP side, House leaders had not decided at press time whether to whip against the bill or for sustaining a Bush veto. Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) will vote against it, but leadership is divided. Minority Whip Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) is undecided, while Republican Conference Chairman Adam Putnam (Fla.) was on the conference committee and supports it.

Without directing a concerted effort, the farm bill could sail through with large bipartisan majorities. Republicans opposed the farm bill version the House passed because of a tax provision, but now face a more difficult package to oppose, especially in an election year. Yet Republican leaders, and the RSC in particular, have put fiscal responsibility and clamping down on soaring government spending as a top priority for rebuilding the GOP brand.

“For leadership, they are damned if they do and damned if they don’t,” said a House GOP aide. “A concerted effort against the bill and our guys vote for it is bad. And not leading the fight makes us look bad on spending.”

Former RSC Chairman Rep. Mike Pence (Ind.) is among the lawmakers in an uncomfortable position. Pence put out a press release Tuesday titled “Farm Bill to Save Indiana Jobs and Create New Opportunities for Farmers,” yet said he remains undecided over whether to vote for the bill.

Two changes sought by Pence made it into the final bill. One is aimed at helping preserve 500 jobs at an IBM facility in his state. The bill also includes a version of the Farming Flexibility Act that Pence sponsored in 2003 to ensure subsidies for farmers who grow specialty crops.

“I’m still undecided on the bill,” Pence said. “I’m not yet convinced it’s in the broader interests of American taxpayers.”

Blue Dog Rep. Jim Cooper (D-Tenn.) said he opposes the bill for violating pay-as-you-go budget rules but acknowledged that many Blue Dogs will still back it. He called the Agriculture Committee “the Blue Dog ghetto” because it is populated with so many of its members.

“If the Blue Dogs have an Achilles’ heel, that’s it, “ he said.

RSC Chairman Rep. Jeb Hensarling (Texas) is rallying his divided group against the bill.

“Chairman Hensarling is opposed to the bill and will look to educate RSC members not only about why the bill is a bad deal for the majority of taxpayers, but also about the $250 million taxpayer dollars within it earmarked for Sen. Max Baucus’ [D-Mont.] campaign contributors,” said Brad Dayspring, spokesman for Hensarling.

Dayspring was referring to a $250 million provision that Republicans say is effectively an earmark to the Nature Conservancy for a purchase of land owned by a timber company in Montana whose employees have donated campaign money to Baucus.

A Baucus aide denied the earmark charge, saying the funding is not limited to any one geographical area. “The forest conservation bonds provision is Sen. Baucus’ response to the increasing loss of public access to pristine lands across our country, and is a model for providing new tools to states, local communities and conservation groups working to purchase land before it can be flipped and developed into condos, strip malls and golf courses,” said the Baucus aide, who said campaign contributions had no effect.

Liberal lawmakers appear to have largely been appeased with a more than $10 billion hike for food stamps and other nutrition programs, and the bill is packed with carve-outs sought by powerful Members on both sides of the aisle, such as a trade bonus for Haiti and Caribbean nations sought by Ways and Means Chairman Charlie Rangel (D-N.Y.).

Three prominent critics of the bill — Reps. Ron Kind (D-Wis.), Earl Blumenauer (D-Ore.) and Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) — argued that the conference agreement reforms “appear to be modest at best, harmful at worst.”

“We urge you to reject these sham reforms and demand real reform,” they wrote.

Although the bill includes new caps on income for farmers to receive direct subsidies, married farmers could make up to $1.5 million a year in farm income and $1 million in nonfarm income before getting cut off from the program, they contend. The trio said increases in target prices for farm products will cost billions when prices fall, money that is not factored in to current budget calculations.

They also opposed the creation of a permanent disaster relief fund. “The federal government already bankrolls crop insurance to help farmers when a crop fails, countercyclical payments when prices drop, marketing loans to allow farmers to finance a crop and guarantee a price, and direct payments for no reason at all.”

Bill supporters, including House Agriculture Chairman Collin Peterson (D-Minn.), acknowledge that it’s difficult to answer why farmers are getting checks even when prices are high, but said the bill is the best that could be produced and does include reforms.

A Democratic aide said those reforms could be lost if the bill is delayed another year, and argued that the bill would ensure a bountiful domestic food supply at a time of global food shortages.

With 49 House Members on the conference committee, negotiators had to negotiate a bill with wide support. “This was the way we could get everybody to agree,” the aide said.

But it isn’t nearly enough for Bush, who expressed “deep disappointment” with the bill Tuesday and promised to veto it.

“Farm income is expected to exceed the 10-year average by 50 percent this year, yet Congress’ bill asks American taxpayers to subsidize the incomes of married farmers who earn $1.5 million per year,” Bush complained. Bush said the bill would cost $20 billion more over 10 years than current law, and $10 billion more than claimed by lawmakers because of a variety of budgetary gimmicks, including pushing some payments past the budget window.

Instead, Bush called on Congress for a one-year extension of current law.

“It is a far superior option than supporting a bill that increases farm subsidy rates, spends too much and fails to reform farm programs for the future,” he said.

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