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Journamalism Over the Farm Bill

Ben Muse quotes directs us to yet another piece of journamalism from the Washington Post: "Powerful Interests Ally to Restructure Agriculture Subsidies," by Dan Morgan, Sarah Cohen and Gilbert M. Gaul, December 21, 2006.

And yes, the farm bill that Bush called "a job well done" is yet another bad use of public money by the Republicans:

: Powerful Interests: One of the most remarkable examples of the farm lobby's power came in 2001 and 2002, when the existing farm bill was written, expanding payments again over the opposition of the White House and key lawmakers. Reformers see it as a cautionary tale. The architect of the legislation was Rep. Larry Combest....

With help from a generous mandate from the House Budget Committee -- chaired by Jim Nussle (R-Iowa) -- Combest produced a new farm bill in 2001 authorizing an eye-popping $50 billion, 10-year increase in price supports and income supports for farmers. He boasted that the measure was "a major step away from Freedom to Farm." For one thing, the bill restored a key pillar of the pre-1996 program: cash payments that compensate for low crop prices....

The Bush White House disliked Combest's bill. Chief political adviser Karl Rove saw it as the antithesis of fiscal responsibility. "We're Republicans," aides remember Rove grumbling. The White House budget office issued a stinging critique, saying the bill was too costly and failed to help farmers most in need. Combest also faced strong opposition from a disgruntled group of Eastern and Midwestern lawmakers, and from senators who wanted tighter limits on what a farm could collect each year. But Combest had a strong hand. "He hijacked the process," said a former USDA official who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he still deals with Congress.

At a meeting in Rove's office soon after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, Combest delivered a warning, according to several people with knowledge of the session. Unless the administration backed off, Combest warned, he and his farm-bloc allies would sink a top priority of President Bush's: legislation giving the president a free hand to negotiate a global trade treaty strongly favored by big corporations. "You have to ease up," one participant remembers Combest saying.

Over the next several months, the administration laid off its public criticism of Combest's farm bill. Combest withdrew his opposition to trade-promotion authority, and it squeaked through the House by a single vote.... In the House, Reps. Ron Kind (D-Wis.) and Sherwood L. Boehlert (R-N.Y.) had 145 signatures for an amendment that would tear up Combest's handiwork.... Among Kind's allies were "green Republicans" such as Rep. Wayne T. Gilchrist (R-Md.) and hunting and fishing groups championed by Rep. John D. Dingell (D-Mich.).... The Agriculture Committee's control over food-stamp funding -- a top priority for the black and Hispanic caucuses -- provided additional leverage. Combest's supporters "made it known that nutrition would be the victim" if the bill was rewritten, said Rep. Eva Clayton (D-N.C.), a member of the Congressional Black Caucus and the Agriculture Committee. "I encouraged members of the black caucus to vote against" the amendment, she said, "because of the nutrition impact." Kind's amendment was defeated 226 to 200, with the black caucus providing 10 critical "no" votes. The next day the House overwhelmingly approved Combest's farm bill.

The farm bill passed the Senate, too. But not before an amendment sponsored by Sens. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa) and Byron L. Dorgan (D-N.D.) was approved 2 to 1. It aimed to close loopholes.... As House and Senate negotiators met to reconcile the two versions of the farm bill, Combest chaired the meetings. When the final bill emerged, the Grassley-Dorgan changes had all but vanished.... "The simple fact of the matter is our Senate leaders let themselves be outmaneuvered," said Grassley, who voted against the final compromise version of the farm bill. "They were run over by Southern forces in the House, and they ended up with what the House wanted."

Grassley was not quite finished. He called the White House to lobby for a veto. "My reason was that the Senate had been sold out on everything," he said. But White House aides, aware of the importance of the farm-bill money to red states with midterm elections nearing, did not recommend a veto. Before signing the legislation, Bush praised Combest for a "job well done"...

Perhaps the most remarkable of many truly remarkable statements by Morgan, Cohen, and Gaul is that the Combest bill was approved "over the opposition" of the White House. No matter what Rove and his flunkies tell their favored stenographers at the Washington Post, the Bush economic agencies got no backup from the political shop in their attempts to derail or at least modify the farm bill to make it less destructive--no veto threats, no phone calls from Bush to the conferees saying the administration strongly favored the Senate version, no nothing. And of the claim that Karl Rove saw a 1/4 of 1% increase in federal spending as "the antithesis of fiscal responsibility"--well, only reporters both truly ignorant of the budget and in the tank could repeat that with straight faces.

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