Farm bill heads toward approval — and Bush veto

WASHINGTON — The House of Representatives on Wednesday will approve a five-year, $280 billion-plus farm bill, accelerating an election-year collision with President Bush.

Packed with subsidies, watered-down revisions and special goodies — some popped in at the last minute — the massive farm bill faces a promised presidential veto. The big political unknown is whether enough Republicans will abandon Bush to render him powerless.

"I am deeply disappointed in the (bill) as it falls far short of the proposal my administration put forward," Bush declared in a statement Tuesday afternoon. "If this bill makes it to my desk, I will veto it."

A two-thirds vote in both the House and Senate is needed to overcome a veto. That margin is all but guaranteed in the Senate, but the House will be a closer call.

Officially called the Food, Conservation and Energy Act of 2008, the farm bill devotes nearly three-quarters of its funding to food stamps and other nutrition programs. It offers record spending for fruits and vegetables while largely sustaining traditional crop subsidies.

Bush wanted the bill to ban all subsidy payments to farmers with incomes exceeding $200,000. Instead, the bill bans one form of subsidy to farmers with agricultural incomes exceeding $750,000. For a married couple, the outside income limit will be $1.5 million.

Beyond the big-ticket items, the bill is a grab bag of Capitol Hill favorites, many narrowly tailored.

The bill includes new "stress assistance" grants for farmers and ranchers. It funds a University of Nebraska drought assistance center and directs agricultural grants toward the acutely urban University of the District of Columbia. It makes certain racehorses depreciable over three years instead of the standard seven.

Lawmakers looking for details on Tuesday were still scouring the 673-page farm bill conference report and accompanying 423-page explanatory statement, made public about 24 hours before Wednesday's House vote. The conference report reflects deals struck by negotiators over the past several months.

"It was written by the conference committee behind completely closed doors," complained Julie Sibbing, an agriculture and wetlands policy analyst for the National Wildlife Federation.

Some critics cited as an example the $170 million included in the final farm bill for distressed salmon fishermen in Washington, Oregon and California. Neither the House nor Senate farm bills passed earlier included the money, but it was a priority for House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and her close ally, Rep. Mike Thompson, D-Calif.

"It was simply 'air-dropped' into the final bill in secret," charged House Minority Leader John Boehner of Ohio.

Thompson responded that the funding was supported by other Western lawmakers and was "desperately needed" by communities adversely affected by the closure of Pacific Ocean fishing areas. Low fish populations in the Sacramento and Columbia rivers prompted the closures.

More than 550 farm, consumer and service organizations, ranging from the Texas Peanut Growers Association to the Florida Sugar Cane League, likewise rallied in support of the legislation.

"On balance, it's a fair bill," said Jack King, the manager of national affairs for the California Farm Bureau Federation. "I think it represents what people were looking for, in nutrition and conservation."

Farm groups favor the subsidies and new specialty-crop provisions, which include an additional $1 billion to be spent on purchasing fruits and vegetables for school snacks. Lawmakers further extended the bill's political appeal by how they distributed funding.

The school snack program, for instance, expands to all 50 states the fruit and vegetable purchases currently limited to schools in 14 states. In a similar vein, the bill provides $224 million over five years for block grants to help states promote fruits and vegetables. Every state, no matter how small its specialty-crop production, is guaranteed at least $100,000 annually in grants.

At the behest of Upper Plains state lawmakers, whose corn and grain farmers frequently lose crops to bad weather, the bill includes a new $3.8 billion permanent disaster relief program. Negotiators made this more alluring to farmers in states such as Florida and California by designating $800 million of the total for specialty crops.

The Senate in December demonstrated the farm bill's overall political popularity, approving its original version by a 79-14 margin. The House's original approval margin of 231-191 last summer was misleadingly narrow, as Republicans were unhappy with tax provisions that have since been removed.