Against the backdrop of a harvest confronting a lethargic market. Congress was debating the next farm bill. A measure drafted by the House agriculture committee hit the floor for full debate and was greeted by a proposed amendment designed to dramatically overhaul the structure of farm subsidies. The proposed amendment was the first serious test of the power of the traditional farm lobby's hold on government farm programs.
The sometimes heated debate was over increased spending for conservation programs. At issue was not just the future direction of U.S. farm programs, but also the breakdown of the traditional alliances that forged farm policy in the past. In the end, the winners were the backers of a House Agriculture Committee bill that will provide a whopping $168 billion dollars in farm program spending through 2011. The bill, backed primarily by lawmakers representing grain and cotton interests, DOES increase spending on conservation programs. But critics, led by lawmakers representing farm interests that receive little or no direct government support, argued those increases were inadequate. Sensing White House opposition to the base bill, they offered an amendment that would have shifted $19 billion dollars out of crop subsidies to conservation programs. Their hope was to get a bigger piece of the government pie for farmers currently outside traditional subsidy programs. But, by a narrow margin, the amendment was defeated. Conservation has become the focus of overhauling the nation's farm policy. Backers of the House version of the farm bill say their legislation not only emphasizes conservation, but also provides a safety net for farmers after years of low grain prices. But the Bush administration this week repeated its sharp criticism of existing farm policy. It also warned Congress against pursuing continued dependence on subsidies instead of conservation payments. The Democrat-controlled Senate, too, favors a more conservation-oriented farm policy. Full debate in that chamber is expected to begin later in the fall.