WASHINGTON – As long as the grocery shelves are full, most urban Americans rarely ponder U.S. farm policy.
But across vast stretches of the nation, citizens watch Congress very carefully when it debates agricultural policy. Of great concern in the farm belt is a movement in recent years to phase out federal payments to farmers.
"It's a subsidy. It's a price support. It's described in a variety of different ways," said Rep. Larry Combest, R-Texas, chairman of the House Agriculture Committee.
Whatever these payments are called, the new agriculture bills that have passed the House and Senate are chock-full of them, a distinct difference from the 1996 Freedom to Farm Act passed by the Republican-dominated Congress to wean farmers off subsidies.
Combest said that the bill wasn't working because it was creating a system in which crises were handled as they arose instead of through advanced planning.
Nevertheless, President Bush has indicated that he doesn't like these payments, though he has reluctantly been supporting them.
Without using the words "subsidy" or "price supports," he attacked the concept in a recent address to cattlemen in Denver.
"I favor farm policies that strengthen the farm economy over the long run, policies that promote independence. But what I don't want to do is to provide incentives into the marketplace that will hurt farmers," he told the National Cattlemen's Association Conference during a stopover on his way to the opening ceremonies for the Olympics in Salt Lake City.
Back when the Republican-led House was debating its version of the agriculture bill last October, the Bush administration's Office of Management and Budget issued a strong statement.
"H.R. 2646 would continue to contribute to overproduction caused partially by increased production-based payments to farmers," it said. "Hence, the administration does not support H.R. 2646."
But in recent days, the Bush administration has changed its position. It now endorses the House legislation, which spreads the $73.5 billion increase in farm spending more evenly over the next 10 years than a corresponding Senate bill.
Bush said the even distribution would help strengthen the farm industry, which produced $1.3 trillion of the nation's nearly $10 trillion economy in 2000. The farm economy employs nearly 24 million people.
Combest said the administration's position isn't a flip-flop, but the result of closer attention by the Department of Agriculture to farm policy being proposed in the House and Senate.
"What happened? I think it was the fact that the USDA was simply not engaged," Combest said. "The administration recognized that it was a good approach — it did do what they wanted it to do — and consequently we have their support now."
It may also have something to do with the fact that the Bush administration finds the Senate agriculture bill, developed under the watchful eye of Agriculture Chairman Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, completely unpalatable despite caps on how much money any one farm can receive.
The Senate bill also proposes nearly twice as much for conservation programs as the House bill.
The Bush administration, however, said it is lining up behind what it sees as the better of two imperfect bills.
Neither side will get everything it wants in the upcoming House-Senate conference, but it's reasonably safe to assume that subsidies, or price supports, or simply federal payments to farmers will be around for a while.