Unless you actually grow crops, the farm bill can be an overwhelming piece of legislation. News reports last week on House approval of a new five-year, $286 billion measure were peppered with words like “massive,” “major,” “mammoth” and “sprawling.”

But among progressive activists, outrage is the most common response. A broad coalition of fair-trade groups, environmentalists, religious organizations and fiscal conservatives are furious with a “broken system” of age-old subsidies to grain and cotton farmers. Reform groups like Oxfam America repeatedly cite the statistic that 75 percent of all subsidies go to the top 10 percent of producers of staple goods like corn. They underline the bureaucratic mess of a system that allows celebrity farmers like David Letterman and Scottie Pippen to receive farm subsidies. Organizations from Taxpayers for Common Sense to the Progressive National Baptist Convention argue that subsidies encourage mass production by agribusiness, dump unwanted crops on developing countries and destroy the livelihood of farmers in the Third World.

The new House Democratic majority could have produced a different outcome. Instead, reformers say, Democrats expediently protected subsidy-heavy Congressional districts. “It is the status quo with an illusion of reform wrapped around it,” declares Ken Cook, president of the Environmental Working Group, an organization that keeps a database on all government subsidies to farmers. “The House bill was about entrenched interests who managed to push it off as reform,” asserts the Rev. David Beckmann, president of Bread for the World. The farm-bill reform movement–armed with editorial-page support from more than seventy daily newspapers–will next vigorously lobby the Senate, which is scheduled to come up with its own overhaul of the subsidy system in September.

But there is a problem with the “politics as usual” narrative. In this case, it is not altogether true. Indeed, the farm bill has become an unlikely and overlooked vehicle for progressive policies. Two-thirds of that $286 billion goes toward more–and healthier–food to schoolchildren at home and to the hungry abroad. And while subsidies are the focus of the reform movement’s ire, these payments to farmers amount to just 13 percent of the House bill.

A critical component of the bill gives $4 billion more to the federal food stamp program that helps feed the 25 million hungry Americans. The 1996 Welfare Reform Act had significantly scaled back food stamps, giving the average individual a stipend of $21 a week–or $1 a meal. The farm bill would belatedly adjust the stipends for inflation and provide more money to food banks, which supply food pantries and soup kitchens. The legislation also helps those abroad by allocating $840 million in US hunger-aid programs.

And the House finally recognized America’s growing healthy-eating movement by significantly expanding fruit and vegetable school snack programs and setting aside nearly $2 billion for farmers to grow “specialty” crops that fall outside the big five of corn, soybeans, wheat, cotton and rice. Much of that money will go to small organic farming.

Iowa Democrat Tom Harkin, who chairs the Senate Agriculture Committee, noted the importance of these changes. “There were huge cutbacks in federal nutrition assistance during the Gingrich Revolution of the mid-1990s,” he says, “and we have been working to remedy that damage to low-income families since.” Even Bread for the World’s Beckmann agrees. “The food stamps and improvements to school lunch are hugely important–these are politically popular programs now,” he says.

But leave it to the Bush Administration to play the role of cartoon villain. The White House has promised to veto the bill because the $4 billion in nutrition programs are funded by closing a $4 billion tax loophole aimed at companies based abroad that do much of their business in America.

Most House Republicans were previously supportive of the farm bill, but they shifted positions when President Bush announced that he would veto any legislation with a tax increase. After trying to craft a bipartisan bill, Democratic leaders took out their frustration. “This is a corporate tax loophole that the Bush Administration itself recommended closing in 2002,” said House majority leader Steny Hoyer on the House floor, adding that the tax “would make it harder for overseas companies to use tax havens to avoid taxes on US profits.”

Subsidy reformers in Congress say they have a solution to this suddenly partisan debate. The House and Senate must agree on a farm bill to present to the President. Under the House bill only farmers making more than $1 million a year are ineligible for subsidies. Senate reformers like Dick Durbin of Illinois and Richard Lugar of Indiana want to put the cap at about $250,000, cut a few more subsidies and use the freed-up money to pay for the expanded hunger-aid programs. Wisconsin Democrat Ron Kind, who led an unsuccessful movement in the House to revamp farm subsidies, calls the House bill a “non-starter that will never be enacted into law with the tax increase.” But Kind noted it was possible to achieve progressive hunger and nutrition reforms without increasing taxes by cutting payments to farmers.

Curbing subsidies, however, could be as challenging in the Senate as it was in the House. “Many members from traditional farm states, especially the South and Midwest, view reform measures as an almost existential challenge to the livelihood of their farmers,” says a Senate aide. These members could include Georgia’s Saxby Chambliss, the Republican leader on the Agriculture Committee, and even Harkin, who is on the fence between subsidy reform and continued payments to Iowa farmers. A House Agriculture Committee aide says that senators indebted to constituent farmers could filibuster any drastic reform. “Change will be hard because you’ll need sixty votes to do anything.”

The GOP’s knee-jerk rejection of any tax hike, combined with the expected regional objection to subsidy decreases, has thrown the House changes into jeopardy. Farm bill reformers are expected to wage a spirited battle to overhaul subsidies. It bears monitoring whether the House’s unassuming hunger and nutrition accomplishments get lost in the fight.