WASHINGTON — The House on Wednesday quickly overrode President Bush's veto of a five-year, $289 billion farm bill, with Republicans joining Democrats to embrace the bill Bush calls bloated.
Voting 316-108, the House rolled right over Bush only a few hours after the president quietly vetoed the bill. The Senate will soon follow suit, handing the lame-duck president a lesson in congressional election-year priorities.
"The president has let down American agriculture today, and that's just a shame," said Democratic Rep. Dennis Cardoza of California, chair of the House horticulture and organic agriculture subcommittee.
The farm bill marks Bush's tenth veto of his presidency, but only the second time Congress will have mustered the two-thirds vote necessary to override him. It also caps a political drama that has dragged on for several years and played to decidedly mixed reviews.
"At a time of high food prices and record farm income, this bill lacks program reform and fiscal discipline," Bush declared in his Wednesday morning veto message.
The House sped to override Bush's veto, finishing about nine hours after he acted. The Senate was poised to do the same no later than Thursday.
Previous House and Senate vote margins had made it clear the president's veto would fail, and the only unexpected twist Wednesday came with the revelation that the farm bill Congress sent Bush inadvertently omitted one section covering trade. One farm bill opponent insisted this will pose a serious legal problem, while others called it simply the latest in a series of farm bill misadventures.
"This has been a very difficult bill," sighed Rep. Collin Peterson, D-Minn., chairman of the House Agriculture Committee. "There have been numerous problems that have developed."
Still, lawmakers packed into the 628-page bill an array of subsidies, grants, mandates and tax breaks touching every region of the country. Two-thirds of the money goes for nutrition assistance and food stamps, which are renamed the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.
By spreading around the benefits, the farm bill's authors were able to lure widespread political support. The bill includes record spending on fruits and vegetables, a new disaster aid program targeting the Midwest and more generous food stamp benefits.
This week, tellingly, 1,054 farm, nutrition and consumer organizations ranging from the Florida Sugar Cane League to the California PTA rallied to urge congressional support for the bill. Each group has its own stake in the measure.
Beet and sugar cane producers, for instance, won increases in the loan rates that amount to guaranteed minimum prices. School advocates like a new $1 billion program that will purchase fresh fruits and vegetables for snacks in all 50 states.
"The bill is a collaborative effort, crafted by members on both sides of the aisle," said Rep. Bob Goodlatte of Virginia, the senior Republican on the House Agriculture Committee.
Bush, on the other hand, was supported by a scattershot alliance that included the likes of the libertarian-minded Cato Institute and the anti-poverty group Oxfam America. Many of these critics cited the bill's purported lack of true payment reform.
Currently, crop subsidies are restricted to farmers with gross incomes below $2.5 million. Bush, casting the debate into stark relief, called for a $200,000 income limit.
Congress ended up tinkering. The new farm bill bans one kind of subsidy, called a direct payment, to farmers with agricultural income over $750,000. This limit would increase to $1.5 million for a married couple. They could also add in an additional $1 million in off-farm income and still remain eligible for subsidies.
"If this represents reform, I'd hate to see what the Agriculture Committee calls a boondoggle," said Rep. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz.