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"Asked how she could justify paying so much money to wealthy farmers when food prices are rising and Democrats are calling for change in Washington, [House Speaker Nancy] Pelosi listed the bill's nutrition and conservation spending.

"I justify it by saying this is the best farm bill I've ever voted on." - San Francisco Chronicle, May 15, 2008, p. 1.

In fact, the article on the front page of Speaker Pelosi's hometown newspaper highlights the many reasons that the farm bill passed by the House of Representatives is not a "very big step in the right direction," as Pelosi also claimed. Senator Richard Lugar (R-IN) agreed that the farm bill "contains many worthwhile polices, including valuable investments in conservation and nutrition programs," but he came down on the other side and was one of only 15 senators voting against the bill today. More than 300 House members voted in favor of the bill yesterday, enough to easily override President Bush's expected—and well-deserved—veto. Reform champions Ron Kind (D-WI), Earl Blumenauer (D-WA) and 13 other brave souls in the majority also deserve kudos for bucking their leadership on this issue.

The absurdities in the farm bill are put in stark relief by reporter Caroyn Lochhead in the San Francisco Chronicle article cited above:

"A farm couple will be allowed to earn up to $2.5 million a year before government payments are cut off under new rules that lawmakers called a major reform. An urban couple applying for food stamps is cut off at $17,808 in income and may own only one car."

Yet, this is the best farm bill that Pelosi has ever voted on because, under previous bills, there was no cap at all on the amount of income that a person could earn by farming and still collect subsidies, and individuals could earn as much as $2.4 million in non-farm income and still get a subsidy check from the American taxpayer—that's you and me. Under this year's bill, all subsidies are cut off when non-farm income exceeds $500,000 but, contrary to the Chronicle article, only direct payments, which are paid out no matter how high prices go, are cut off for those earning more than $750,000 from farming. And in each case, a spouse can earn just as much and the household will still be eligible for taxpayer largesse, thus adding up to $2.5 million.

Worse, in order to ensure that farmers selling at the highest prices in decades aren't squeezed too hard, the farm bill cuts funding that had been allocated to provide school lunches for poor kids in developing countries. Even in the midst of a global food crisis, the farm bill also maintains a system for delivering US food aid that means that tens of millions of dollars go to American shipping companies rather than to feeding hungry people. The farm bill also continues policies that have already been found to violate US obligations under international trade rules and, according to the Chronicle, it would allow farmers to collect subsidies for crops grown on newly plowed grasslands, which contributes to global warming.

Relative to past farm bills, maybe you could call this reform. But is it really the best that Congress can do?

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CGD blog posts reflect the views of the authors, drawing on prior research and experience in their areas of expertise. CGD is a nonpartisan, independent organization and does not take institutional positions.