WASHINGTON – The House on Thursday passed an election-year farm bill that will boost spending by 70 percent and increase subsidies to grain and cotton farms while adding thousands of other producers to the federal dole.
Shortly before the 280-141 vote, President Bush said the legislation wasn't everything he wanted but will "help ensure the immediate and long-term viability of our farm economy." A Senate vote was likely later Thursday.
The bill marks the reversal of the market-oriented policy of the 1996 Freedom to Farm law that was supposed to wean farmers from government subsidies.
"We all know that Freedom to Farm didn't work," said Rep. Jo Ann Emerson, R-Mo. "While no farmer wants to depend on the government for anything, it is critical that we provide a safety net to our producers."
The bill would authorize $180 billion in spending over the next 10 years, a $73.5 billion increase over existing programs. The legislation provides new payments for everything from milk and lentils to honey and wool.
Also, there is an 80 percent increase in land-conservation programs that will benefit livestock farms and fruit and vegetable growers who have historically received little federal cash.
The bill would pump billions of dollars into the economies of Plains and Southern states that are critical for Republicans. It has been praised by groups including the National Milk Producers Federation, United Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Association and the American Farm Bureau Federation.
The administration's support for the bill is a "complete flip-flop" from its earlier criticism of farm subsidies, said Ken Cook, president of the Environmental Working Group.
In a 120-page policy statement last fall, the administration said the subsdies stimulate excess production, inflate land rents and largely benefit a relatively small number of big farms. Economists say the new bill does little to address those complaints.
The bill's increased subsidies have angered foreign competitors. The European Union said Thursday it was considering challenging the payments before the World Trade Organization. Under WTO limits, certain U.S. farm subsidies cannot exceed $19.1 billion annually.
"The United States is increasing trade-distorting support for (American) farmers that will harm developing countries. This is what we are fiercely opposed to," EU spokesman Gregor Kreuzhuber.
Canada's agriculture minister, Lyle Vanclief, said the higher subsidies wee a "serious blow to the U.S.'s crediblity" to negotiate lower international trade barriers.
The House rejected a last-minute proposal by the bill's opponents to set new limits on payments to big farms and use the savings for conservation needs and other programs. A similar proposal passed the House 265-158 last month but that vote was not binding on congressional negotiators who wrote the final bill.
The Freedom to Farm law, which ended a Depression-era system of production controls, was supposed to bring some control to farm spending and discourage overproduction of surplus crops. But when commodity prices plummeted in the late 1990s, Congress responded with a series of multibillion dollar bailouts.
Critics of the new bill say that the free-market policy wasn't given a chance to work.
"We're going back to what we know didn't work for 60 years," said Rep. John Boehner, R-Ohio.
Environmentalists say the $17 billion increase in spending on land-conservation programs over 10 years was inadequate, given that crop subsidies also would grow substantially under the bill.
Animal-welfare groups lamented the rejection by congressional negotiators of several Senate-passed provisions, including one that would have set tougher standards for dog breeders. The legislation also would exclude small research animals such as rats and mice from a federal law that sets animal handling standards. The bill would, however, ban the interstate shipment of fighting birds.