WASHINGTON — The House of Representatives this week is replaying a farm bill fight that's customarily won by the agricultural status quo.
In one corner: Powerful farm organizations are united behind a bill that guarantees tens of billions of dollars in subsidies. In the other corner: A hodgepodge of taxpayer advocates and self-styled reformers seeks serious change.
On Thursday, the two sides bring their long-running conflict back to the House floor.
"It's very difficult to squeeze all the hopes and dreams of members into a bill like this," Rep. Dennis Cardoza, D-Calif., acknowledged Tuesday.
The House farm bill would cost an estimated $286 billion over the next five years, according to the Congressional Budget Office. The money would pay for subsidies, food stamps, block grants and more.
Sprawling across 744 pages, the House bill will face multiple amendments during debate Thursday. The most important and closely watched alternative would cut subsidies and impose much tighter payment limits than those written by the House Agriculture Committee.
The House bill would block subsidies to growers with gross annual incomes greater than $1 million. However, it also would increase the amount that eligible farmers could receive. For instance, a farmer could receive $60,000 in direct payments instead of $40,000. Spouses could receive an additional $60,000.
"With the loopholes that continue to exist, you can drive a combine through them," Rep. Ron Kind, D-Wis., said Tuesday.
Five years ago, Kind pushed a farm-bill revision amendment. It failed by a 226-200 vote, a relatively close call that may be hard to duplicate this year. Among Kind's 2002 supporters, for instance, was Rep. Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif. Pelosi is now House speaker, and unlike in 2002, she now supports the House Agriculture Committee bill for policy and political reasons.
"It is a careful balance that I think says you're never going to see a farm bill that looks like past farm bills again," Pelosi declared in a statement.
With the help of Pelosi and Cardoza, who represents part of California's fertile San Joaquin Valley and chairs the House horticulture and organic agriculture subcommittee, the House bill includes record funding for the specialty-crop industry. The legislation includes some $1.7 billion over five years for specialty crops, which primarily means fruits and vegetables.
The specialty-crop spending approximately quadruples what the last farm bill offered in 2002. It's one of the newer inducements for a package considered crucial in some 2008 re-election campaigns. In particular, House leaders are attuned to the political needs of eight Democratic freshmen serving on the House Agriculture Committee.
The freshmen Democrats represent rural districts in states such as Florida, Georgia and Kansas, where a successful farm bill could help ward off conservative challenges next year. All 21 of the House Agriculture Committee's Republican members voted for the legislation.
"We need to make sure that as we move forward, we do it as a team," stressed Rep. Robert Goodlatte of Virginia, the agriculture committee's senior Republican.
Republicans, Goodlatte added, will insist that the bill avoids anything that could be construed as a tax increase.
While boosting specialty-crop spending, the House bill keeps largely intact commodity subsidies for crops such as cotton, rice, wheat and corn. In some cases, as with sugar cane and sugar beets, the House bill is more generous than current law.
Sugar policies invite most heated House debates, but the Agriculture Committee typically wins them. In 2002, for instance, the House rejected a reduction in sugar price supports by a 239-177 vote. The rhetoric remains severe, but the vote margins may have stayed the same.
"It is a complete failure on the part of the House not to reform our nation's sugar policy," declared former California Democratic Rep. Cal Dooley, now president of the Grocery Manufacturers Association.
As a congressman, Dooley repeatedly pressed for free-market farm bill revisions. Usually, he did not succeed.