The Farm Bill Shell Game

How do you get the United States Senate to vote 81-19 on anything?  By putting something for every senator in it.  The Senate voted on Thursday on something called the “Food, Conservation and Energy Act of 2008.”  This was the continuation of the farm bills of old, larded with every sort of special subsidy and earmarks for every porker in the Senate.  Seventy-Four percent of the funding for the bill will be on the school lunch program, food stamps and food banks and twenty-six percent is allocated for farm related programs.  

I had a chance to talk to Sen. Saxby Chambliss, the ranking Republican on the Agriculture Committee while in Columbus, Georgia for the Georgia GOP Convention.  In his 10-15 minute speech to the faithful about electing a President McCain, he did not mention the word “farm” or the name of “Bush.”  When asked about it he said there was no particular reason for the omissions.  He is still a friend of President Bush and looks forward to working with him this year.  

He went on to say that he was excited about the bill passed and “what we got.” That’s the warning bell you hear ringing in the background.  Chambliss’ approach to the farm bill is almost the same as every other earmarker and subsidy-supporter on a too-long list of Senate members.  Chambliss defended the bill in just those terms. He said he saw it as a win for his home state of Georgia where Agriculture is the number one industry and where 1 in 10 people are on food stamps.  

Chambliss is a Republican up for reelection this year in one of the few really safe seats for Republicans in the Senate.  He has a big war chest and relative unknowns vying for the Democrat nomination in a state that grew in Republican control in 2006.  Chambliss’ style in this negotiation is similar to all other issues he’s been involved in; he takes incremental wins while preserving the big idea — which will likely get him re-elected.

One relatively positive aspect is eliminating the preference for using corn in ethanol to using any cellulosic material, like pine trees — also grown in Georgia. In addition, the waste, fraud and abuse in the food stamp program has been dramatically reduced due to the switch over to electronic benefit transfer cards (EBT), which eliminated that actual paper food stamps.  In addition, the cap for income for subsidies for “non farming farmers” was lowered which will essentially  eliminate payments to the Ted Turners and the Sam Donaldsons of the world. That’s the good news.  

The problem with the bill is not just the agriculture component; it is the bill’s scope.  It’s become a Christmas tree of sorts. The large margin by which it passed the House and the Senate creates pressure for the President to sign the bill, though he has promised to veto it.  If he does, Congress will probably enough votes on both sides of the aisle to override his action.

Republicans will push the president to sign it because many agriculture states are Red States.  Democrats will push the president to sign it because of the entitlement portions of the bill effects their Blue States.  If you like the idea of the Feds subsidizing agriculture, food purchases of the poor and new energy sources, then the Farm Bill of 2008 is the bill for you.

A couple of things really lit my fire, though.  On the Farm side of the bill, Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky was able to get tax breaks for the thoroughbred horse racing industry.  Senator Chambliss defended the tax breaks by saying you give tax breaks for hog farms and cattle farms, why not farms that raise horses?  The first thing that came to mind is that we don’t eat horses, at least not knowingly. The second thing that came to mind is that horse racing is a sport.  So if you follow that logic then what’s next, the feds subsidizing Major League Baseball’s “Farm Teams?”  The depreciation of a race horse should not be the federal government’s role.  

Remember the battle to beat back the immigration reform bill less than a year ago?  In this current farm bill, the provision to give a pathway to citizenship for illegal immigrant farm workers was taken out of the final version of the Farm Bill, but it showed up on the Senate side in the committee debating the Iraq Supplemental with an amendment sponsored by Senator Feinstein and Senator Larry “Yes, he’s still around” Craig.  

With all of this, the biggest part of the shell game is the AgJobs portion of the bill.  This is a pathway to citizenship for the million plus illegal immigrant workers used in agriculture.  It was pulled out of the farm bill because Sen. Chambliss and others opposed it. Sens. Feinstein and Craig managed to add it to the emergency war supplemental bill in last week’s Appropriations Committee markups.  
That amnesty amendment includes all the components of the AgJobs amendments of old with one amazing addition.  If a spouse or child of an agriculture worker who has been given a 5 year Visa as a result of this provision is caught crossing the border illegally, the bill actually prohibits them from being deported and requires that they be given work authorization as long as they can make a nonfrivolous claim that they are eligible for the 5 year visa.  Spouses will be given permission to work in the US in any job, even if they were not previously working….Unbelievable,.

Senator Feinstein offered the amendment to the War Supplemental in the form of an “Emergency Agricultural Relief Act (EARA). It passed 17-12 and will be a part of the supplemental when it comes to the floor.  However, adding the amendment to the appropriations bill violates Rule 16 of the Standing Rules of the Senate because it authorizes or legislates on an appropriations bill.  As such, it will be subject to a point of order on the floor and will need 60 votes to retain the language in the bill.

Come on guys and gals, let’s do the work of the people and be honest about what you are doing.  Senator Saxby Chambliss is proud of what the farm bill does and he will stand beside it. I must give him credit for the defense of it and it will fly with the special interests across the board. However, what should be done is to split it into different bills that are germane to the subject and vote on it.  Race horses, food stamps and ethanol policy shouldn’t be in the same bill.