The federal farm bill that President Bush vetoed and that the Congress has enacted despite him is, to be sure, a flawed document. For instance, there are still too many of the wrong kinds of subsidies directed to agribusiness interests and hobbyists rather than working farmers.
But with its web of programs designed to feed the poor, conserve natural resources, keep working farmers on the land and aid rural communities, this farm bill came to present a necessary compromise.
Of the roughly $300 billion in spending authorized by the measure, two-thirds of the money goes for nutrition programs such as food stamps. Another $30 billion pays for environmental initiatives. Farm subsidies account for around $40 billion in spending, and many of the subsidies — though certainly not enough — actually go to aid small farmers who employ responsible agricultural practices.
The measure also extends new protections to African-American farmers who experienced discrimination at the hands of the US. Department of Agriculture, implements a country-of-origin-labeling program long advocated by consumer groups and provides new assistance to initiatives that are designed to get fresh, locally-grown food to school kids, the elderly and people living in institutions.
That’s why the House voted 316-108 to override the president’s veto, and that’s why the Senate will do the same in short order.
Perhaps a lame-duck president can afford to be, in the words of Senate Agriculture Committee chair Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, “aloof and out of touch with the country.”
Perhaps Arizona Senator John McCain, the presumptive Republican nominee for president who acknowledges his ignorance when it comes to the real-life economic challenges facing working Americans, thinks he can get away with supporting George Bush’s stance.
McCain, who is a more militant supporter of corporate-friendly trade policies even than Bush, objected to what he described as the farm bill’s “flawed policies that distort the markets.” Translation: The measure was too good for Main Street and not good enough for Wall Street.
The man McCain is likely to face in the November election, Democrat Barack Obama, embraced a different set of priorities.
“By opposing the bill, President Bush and John McCain are saying no to America’s farmers and ranchers, no to energy independence, no to the environment, and no to millions of hungry people,” argued Obama.
“The bill places greater resources into renewable energy and conservation. And, during this time of rising food prices, the farm bill provides an additional $10 billion for critical nutrition programs. I am also pleased that the bill includes my proposal to help thousands of African-American farmers get their discrimination claims reviewed under the Pigford settlement,” said Obama.
Most House Republicans (100 of 194 who voted) agreed with the senator from Illinois, as did the vast majority of Democrats (216 of 230).
“Twenty-five percent of my state is now in need of food assistance,” explained Michigan Congressman Thaddeus McCotter, a Republican who rejected the position taken by the president and McCain. “I work for them, not for the president.”
Serious progressives, who recognize the role that the farm bill plays in maintaining social and economic safety nets in the U.S. and abroad, acknowledge this. That’s why more than one thousand activist groups urged the House and Senate to reject the Bush administration’s veto — which was motivated entirely by the president’s determination to set farm policies that serve a failed free-trade agenda and the multinational agribusiness corporations that are the sole beneficiaries of that agenda.
In a letter to members of Congress, the organizations that urged support for the Food, Conservation, and Energy Act of 2008 wrote: “Communities across the nation, from urban to rural, have waited too long for this legislation. The Conference Report makes significant farm policy reforms, protects the safety net for all of America’s food producers, addresses important infrastructure needs for specialty crops, increases funding to feed our nation’s poor, andenhances support for important conservation initiatives.”
“This is by no means a perfect piece of legislation, and none of our organizations achieved everything we had individually requested,” the groups continued. “However, it is a carefully balanced compromise of policy priorities that has broad support among organizations representing the nation’s agriculture, conservation, and nutrition interests.”
Among those declaring that a vote to override the president’s veto was “absolutely essential” were the nation’s largest progressive farm organization — the National Farmers Union — along with the National Farmers Organization, the National Grange, the American Agriculture Movement and the Federation of Southern Cooperatives. Anti-hunger groups such as America’s Second Harvest-The Nation’s Food Bank Network, the National Coalition for the Homeless, the National Head Start Association and MAZON-A Jewish Response to Hunger signed on, as did YMCA of the USA and YWCA USA. So, too, did organizations representing African-American, Latino, Hmong and women farmers, advocates for organic growers and consumers, farmworker groups, the Southern Sustainable Agriculture Working Group and ACORN.
These groups are not naive or unrealistic. They recognize the imperfections in the new farm bill.
But they live and work in the real world, where feeding hungry children, preserving precious wetlands and maintaining a diverse and competition system for producing food matters more than satisfying the free-trade fundamentalists at the WTO, getting on the right side of elite “think tanks” or currying favor with the even more elite editorial boards of The New York Times and the Wall Street Journal.
McCain will get credit for his stance from those newspapers, and others who are fooled by a “maverick” who always seems to end up on the side of the wealthiest and most powerful.
But it is Obama — not McCain, and certainly not Bush — who has approached the farm bill fight with the humane, honest and realistic view that Americans have right to expect from a president.
“This bill is far from perfect,” the senator from Illinois admits. “I believe in tighter payment limits and a ban on packer ownership of livestock. As president, I will continue to fight for the interests of America’s family farmers and ranchers and ensure that assistance is geared towards those producers who truly need them, instead of large agribusinesses. But with so much at stake, we cannot make the perfect the enemy of the good.”