WASHINGTON – Giving money to farmers, traditionally a popular election-year idea, is growing less popular in this election year.
The Senate wants to spend nearly US$4 billion (euro3.12 billion) to help farmers cope with high fuel prices and damage from severe weather. House leaders object to the aid, saying Congress spends taxpayer dollars too freely, and President George W. Bush is threatening to veto the aid.
The White House dislikes the farm aid because it raises the price of a spending bill for the Iraq war and hurricane recovery. Beyond that, the farm money wouldn't give energy relief to every farmer, said Bush's agriculture secretary, Mike Johanns.
Farmers who don't get subsidy checks — fruit and vegetable growers and many others — "would be absolutely cut out," he said.
"My goodness, can I say to these folks, that's fair; you should be satisfied with that?" Johanns told reporters last week in Chicago, where he was speaking to fruit and vegetable growers.
Johanns was talking about payments to help producers pay for fuel and fertilizer, costs that soared last year after Hurricane Katrina.
The energy-related payments, about US$1.6 billion (euro1.25 billion) of the US$4 billion (euro3.12 billion) in aid, would go only to those who get government subsidies.
That's four of every 10 farmers, according to the Agriculture Department. Subsidies go primarily to those who grow corn, wheat, rice, cotton and soybeans.
So while California has more than twice as many farms as North Dakota, California farmers would get less energy aid than North Dakota farmers, according to analysis by Environmental Working Group, one of many groups that criticize subsidy programs.
"An irrigated orchard in Oregon is just as dependent as corn and soybean operations in North Dakota, if not more dependent," said Scott Faber, spokesman for Environmental Defense.
Congress should find ways to end the need for annual bailout from Congress, such as providing incentives to farmers to use energy more efficiently, Faber said.
The aid money for farmers is part of a Senate-passed spending bill for the Iraq war and hurricane recovery.
The Senate added billions of dollars the president didn't ask for, such as the farm aid. House conservatives, urged on by Bush's veto threat, will try to strip the extras from the bill when House-Senate negotiators meet in coming weeks.
Even without the disaster aid, the government will spend an estimated US$17 billion (euro13.26 billion) subsidizing farmers this year.
It will spend at least another US$3.6 billion (euro2.81 billion) on crop insurance, which covers unavoidable crop losses. Unlike subsidies, which go to the major crops, crop insurance is available for all kinds of crops, from avocados to macadamia nuts to sunflowers.