Farm bill headed to White House one more time

WASHINGTON — California walnuts got the once-over from European observers last year, courtesy of a federal program that's one small part of a farm bill now caught in an embarrassing Capitol Hill encore.

President Bush as early as next week will get his second chance to veto the five-year farm bill, following Senate action Thursday. Congress will then override Bush's veto, in a case of political deja vu.

"I am sorry we have to be back on the floor again with the farm bill," Iowa Democratic Sen. Tom Harkin, the chairman of the Senate Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry Committee, acknowledged Thursday.

Harkin had hoped the second go-around for the farm bill could pass quickly, without a recorded vote. Instead, several conservatives forced another round of public scrutiny. They were able to do so, in part, because the Senate needed to pass farm bill provisions that, by chance, are particularly popular among California farmers.

"The farm bill," declared Sen. Jim DeMint, R-S.C., "is chock full of pork and excessive subsidies for favored and special interest groups."

The badly outnumbered DeMint cited several programs of particular interest to California, including a $170 million aid package for the state's salmon fishermen and a new fee on dairy imports that will help fund advertising like the famous "Got Milk?" campaign.

"We should see more commercials soon," DeMint said unhappily.

The Senate ultimately voted 77-15 on Thursday to re-approve the farm bill. This time, though, congressional leaders will make sure the bill sent to the White House for Bush's veto will include all 15 titles. Last month, in a monumental mess-up, Congress sent Bush a version that omitted one of the farm bill's titles.

The omission meant the bill Bush vetoed -- a veto Congress subsequently overrode -- was not the complete farm bill. House Democratic leaders eventually conceded the mistake required Congress to pass the whole farm bill again.

The missing title spanned some 35 pages, covering various trade programs that included the Technical Assistance for Specialty Crop grants. These grants provide modest funding to fruit and vegetable groups seeking access to foreign markets.

The California Walnut Commission, for instance, received a $4,800 grant last year so a European delegation could visit the San Joaquin Valley based industry. Similarly, the Fresno-based California Grape and Tree Fruit League received $159,000 for exporting stone fruit to Mexico, while the California Apple Commission received funding for help in meeting Taiwan's inspection standards.

All told, the new farm bill's trade title boosts Technical Assistance for Specialty Crop funding to $37 million over five years. This is a big increase from current funding, a good chunk of which will likely come to California. , though still a trivial amount compared to a bill whose total five-year price tag has been pegged between $289 billion and $306 billion.

"We have missed the opportunity to be good stewards with Americans' money," grumbled Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla.

The trade title also includes $200 million for the Market Access Program, another favorite of the California wine, fruit and vegetable producers. The MAP funding, which was not nearly as much as Californians had hoped for, provides grants to boost exports for groups like the California Prune Board, California Kiwifruit Commission and the California Cling Peach Board.