WASHINGTON — The House of Representatives on Friday approved a farm bill that devotes record funds to fruits and vegetables while imposing subsidy changes denounced by critics as inadequate.
The House approved the bill by a somewhat misleading 231-191 margin. Many Republicans actually support the underlying legislation, but voted no because they opposed the last-minute addition of a tax provision.
"We have been able to put a bill together that has broad support all across the spectrum," said the chairman of the House Agriculture Committee, Rep. Collin Peterson, D-Minn.
In fact, the politics, prospects and policies of the Farm, Nutrition and Bioenergy Act of 2007 are quite complex. Questions may outnumber answers.
Q. Is Congress done?
A. Hardly. The Senate Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry Committee must now write its own version of the bill. In theory, the Senate must finish in September so the House and Senate can reconcile their competing bills before the current farm bill expires on Sept. 30. Peterson acknowledged it might be a stretch to finish everything by then.
Q. Is President Bush happy with the bill?
A. Not yet. While saying the White House "appreciates the progress" made so far, the Office of Management and Budget warns the current version would be vetoed. For instance, the Bush administration wants to ban subsidies to farmers with gross annual incomes greater than $200,000. The House bill sets the income limit for subsidy recipients at $1 million.
Q. Should I care about this if I'm not a farmer?
A. Absolutely. For instance, the bill increases benefits for the Food Stamp program that currently serves 25 million U.S. residents, and it expands to all 50 states an after-school snack program.
Other impacts of federal policy on food price and availability grow very complicated. For instance, the bill pleases sugar producers by guaranteeing minimum prices. Consumers, though, pay more at the grocery store because of this sugar policy, the non-partisan Government Accountability Office has concluded.
Q. Who are the big winners?
A. Specialty crops, certainly. This means fruits, vegetables, wine -- everything not covered by traditional crop subsidies. The bill counts some $1.7 billion over five years for specialty crops.
This is roughly quadruple the amount authorized in 2002. It would pay for research, school lunch purchases, promotion campaigns and more. It's also a long-term victory for industry groups like the Western Growers Association, because this gets specialty crops into future farm bills as well.
"This bill threads the needle," said the chairman of the House horticulture and organic agriculture subcommittee, Rep. Dennis Cardoza, D-Calif. "There is something for everyone to dislike, but everyone got what they needed."
Q. How about commodities like cotton, rice and wheat?
Winners, all. The House bill largely retains the crop subsidy program written in 2002. Farmers still will be able to collect several kinds of subsidies, which in 2005 totaled some $19 billion nationwide.
Farmers in Iowa, Texas and Illinois led the way in subsidies in 2005. Even California growers, generally more known for their fruits and vegetables, collected $649 million in Agriculture Department payments that year.
Q. Those numbers are pretty impressive. Where do they come from?
A. The Environmental Working Group, another winner in the farm bill debate.
The watchdog group's online subsidy database, searchable at www.ewg.org, has become an indispensable tool in farm policy. Since 2004, the subsidy database has recorded more than 86 million searches.
Q. Who are the big losers?
A. Self-styled reformers lost big. So did bipartisanship, at least temporarily.
Late Thursday night, the House by a 309-117 margin soundly rejected a sweeping proposal to further cut subsidies and provide more for nutrition and conservation.
Critics also couldn't stop the House bill from boosting subsidy payments that individual farmers could receive. Individual direct payments could total $60,000 instead of the current $40,000 limit. And, on Friday, farm-state lawmakers brushed off a challenge to the controversial sugar program.
"Under the guise of saving the family farm, Democrats and Republicans have turned the farm safety net into a slop bucket for American corporate welfare," complained Raymond Offenhiser, president of Oxfam America.
The cozy bipartisanship that customarily enfolds a farm bill also took a hit. Last week, the House Agriculture Committee passed the bill unanimously. This week, angry Republicans rallied against a last-minute, multibillion-dollar provision they call a tax hike but that Democrats said simply closed a tax loophole affecting foreign corporations.
Only 19 Republicans voted for the bill Friday, while 177 voted against it. Democrats supported the bill by a 212-14 margin.
Q. Did the House amend the farm bill much?
A. No. The committee wrote a 744-page bill that survived largely intact, even though 31 amendments were considered by the full House on Thursday and Friday.
The most ambitious amendments failed. The ones accepted were generally small bore, like a "pollinator protection" measure pushed by Rep. Alcee Hastings, D-Fla., that authorizes an unspecified sum to research the collapse of bee colonies.
Q. A bill this big must have lots of earmarks, right?
A. Not really. The bill does target some spending; for instance, a new $300 million regional water quality program is supposed to give priority to the Sacramento River watershed, the Everglades and the Upper Mississippi River Basin, among others
The bill also steers money to certain regions without naming them. For instance, a new $150 million air quality grant program aids farmers in California's San Joaquin Valley, although it's not explicitly named. In general, though, the farm bill does not spell out many earmarks.
Q. How much will this bill cost?
A. A lot. The legislation has a five-year price tag of $286 billion, according to the Congressional Budget Office. Over 10 years, the estimated cost would be $614 billion. Food stamps account for much of this.
The real cost could be higher, as the Congressional Budget Office notes that lawmakers wrote the bill so that it shifts billions of dollars of spending past the 10-year mark.