According to the Commerce Department, retail sales dipped 0.2 percent in April. The decline was led by a 2.8 percent drop in automobile sales. Excluding cars, retail sales actually rose by 0.5 percent.
The government also reported this week that construction of new homes rose 8.2 percent in April. The advance -- -- the largest monthly gain in more than two years — offered a glimmer of hope that the largest housing slump in two decades may be improving.
However, soaring energy prices continue to weigh heavily on the economy. With the national average retail price of gasoline exceeding $3.75 per gallon and diesel fuel approaching $4.50, consumers, businesses, and farmers are feeling the pinch at the pump.
Throw in shifting farm policy, soaring input costs, and one of wettest springs in history; and the outlook for farmers becomes anything but certain. But the fate and fortune of rural America MAY have taken a turn for the better this week when Congress sent President Bush a much overdue Farm Bill that is virtually veto-proof.
Congress passed an election-year farm bill this week by overwhelming margins. The 318-to-106 House vote and the 81-to-15 Senate vote attracted broad bipartisan support and received far more than the two-thirds that would be needed to override a veto by President Bush. After the House vote on Wednesday, both Democratic and Republican lawmakers expressed jubilation at a news conference.
Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-Connecticut - "A vote of 318 --it's very sweet!"
Rep. Randy Neugebauer, R-Texas - "This is a victory for America. It is important America has a strong agricultural economy."
Rep. Bob Goodlatte, R-Virginia - " We have not a 2-to-1 majority, but 3-to-1 majority vote. A 318-to-106 vote is very significant."
President Bush has repeatedly threatened to veto the estimated $300 billion bill, calling it fiscally irresponsible. The main sticking point has been the amount of subsidies to be paid to wealthy farmers in a time of record crop prices.
Bush requested an adjusted gross income limit of $200,000 above which farmers could not qualify for any subsidy payments. But the legislation passed by the Senate and House makes the limit $750,000. Almost $30 billion would go to farmers for conservation programs to set aside environmentally sensitive farmland. All told, subsidies for rice, cotton, corn, soybeans, wheat and other crops account for $43 billion or roughly 14 percent of the farm bill.
Spending on domestic nutrition programs would amount to $200 billion under the farm bill. The legislation, which supporters called "historic," includes a $10.3 billion increase in spending for food stamps and emergency food aid for the needy.
Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-Connecticut -"In 1996, we left people behind and with this bill, we have said to an additional 10 million people, we recognize hunger. We are going to make it easier for you to have food in America."
Along with numerous other reforms, the bill also establishes a permanent disaster assistance program, mandates a country of origin labeling program, and emphasizes a shift to cellulosic ethanol.
Lawmakers in support of the measure estimate $2.5 billion in savings to federal taxpayers over a 10-year period. Despite the overwhelming yes votes this week, the bill does have some farm-state critics.
Rep. Ron Kind, D-Wisconsin -"The fact is you need a few members of Congress to stand up today and say the Emperor has no clothes. Where's the beef? Where's the real reform?"
Rep. Leonard Boswell, D-Iowa -"We all want the whole loaf of bread, but sometimes, we take a few slices and you have to know lots of reform has taken place."
Rep. John Boehner, R-Ohio -"Most Americans think Washington's broken and this farm bill is another example of that."
While those in favor of the farm bill say the legislation is not perfect, they insist it represents compromise from both sides of the aisle.
Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa -"In all my years, this is my seventh farm bill in 30-some years. I have never seen so many groups come together to support a farm bill, over 500 groups."