Friday, December 22, 2006

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You mess with the wheat, you'll get the chaff

The Washington Post wraps a series on federal farm subsidies with a story by Dan Morgan, Sarah Cohen and Gilbert M. Gaul on what happens when you mess with the trough. This part of the story goes back to 2001, and does something I would not have thought possible -- it makes me sympathize with Karl Rove:

One of the most remarkable examples of the farm lobby's power came in 2001 and 2002, when the existing farm bill was written, expanding payments again over the opposition of the White House and key lawmakers. Reformers see it as a cautionary tale.

The architect of the legislation was Rep. Larry Combest, an aggie through and through, a West Texas Republican who came from three generations of cotton farmers and who took control of the House Agriculture Committee in 1999.

Others on Combest's committee included a cattle rancher and tobacco farmer from Tennessee, a Missouri corn and hog farmer, and a government-subsidized rice farmer from Arkansas. The ranking Democrat, Charles W. Stenholm of Texas, had an ownership interest in cotton farms that got more than $300,000 in subsidies between 2001 and 2005, USDA records show.

With help from a generous mandate from the House Budget Committee -- chaired by Jim Nussle (R-Iowa) -- Combest produced a new farm bill in 2001 authorizing an eye-popping $50 billion, 10-year increase in price supports and income supports for farmers. He boasted that the measure was "a major step away from Freedom to Farm."

For one thing, the bill restored a key pillar of the pre-1996 program: cash payments that compensate for low crop prices. Thousands of farms were eligible even if they never grew crops. Budget officials estimated that change alone would cost $37 billion over a decade.

The Bush White House disliked Combest's bill. Chief political adviser Karl Rove saw it as the antithesis of fiscal responsibility. "We're Republicans," aides remember Rove grumbling. The White House budget office issued a stinging critique, saying the bill was too costly and failed to help farmers most in need.

Combest also faced strong opposition from a disgruntled group of Eastern and Midwestern lawmakers, and from senators who wanted tighter limits on what a farm could collect each year.

But Combest had a strong hand. "He hijacked the process," said a former USDA official who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he still deals with Congress.

At a meeting in Rove's office soon after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, Combest delivered a warning, according to several people with knowledge of the session. Unless the administration backed off, Combest warned, he and his farm-bloc allies would sink a top priority of President Bush's: legislation giving the president a free hand to negotiate a global trade treaty strongly favored by big corporations. "You have to ease up," one participant remembers Combest saying.

Over the next several months, the administration laid off its public criticism of Combest's farm bill. Combest withdrew his opposition to trade-promotion authority, and it squeaked through the House by a single vote. He declined to comment for this article.

posted by Dan on 12.22.06 at 07:44 PM


Maybe I am not understanding the nature of this process properly, but I don't have as much sympathy for him as Dan does. This occurred at the height of Bush's power, and yet one congressman was so powerful, the president and his many allies could do nothing to stop him?

posted by: Brian on 12.22.06 at 07:44 PM [permalink]

It really is kind of pitiful and yet so predictable: Bush gives up on a good policy (battling special interest farm subsidies) in order to allow bad policy (no accountability on trade deals) to squeak through. Kind of an epitaph for this administration; using pork to pay off those who would otherwise demand presidential accountability.

posted by: DB on 12.22.06 at 07:44 PM [permalink]

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