Odd Couple Pitches Farm Bill Plan

Posted July 24, 2007 at 6:15pm

House Democratic leaders face what amounts to a mini-rebellion over the 2007 farm bill from a diverse coalition of lawmakers who argue that the bill fails to do enough to crack down on subsidies to rich farmers and powerful interests or to end hunger.

An amendment proposed by Reps. Ron Kind (D-Wis.) and Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) expected on the House floor Thursday would rework the farm package and focus more money on programs such as nutrition and less on direct payments to farmers while saving billions.

The odd bedfellows have a Sisyphean task ahead of them, given the entrenched nature of the commodity interests and the lack of support among leadership for major changes that would anger vulnerable rural Democrats.

Flake said the pair first hooked up last year on a touchdown pass in a flag football game. “He threw it, I caught it, it worked and we figured we should work together more often,” Flake joked. Flake grew up on a farm and lost the end of his right index finger working in an alfalfa field. But he said Kind, who hails from a dairy state, “is more courageous than I am. I’ve got a few cotton farmers and some relatives who won’t speak to me.”

Kind “is a farmer himself and he understands that most of them want to be independent,” Flake said.

Kind, noting that the two previously have worked together, called the amendment “a conversion of interests.”

During a Tuesday press conference to discuss their proposal, Kind and Flake, along with Democratic Reps. Earl Blumenauer (Ore.), Rush Holt (N.J.) and Barbara Lee (Calif.), and Republican Reps. Dave Reichert (Wash.), Paul Ryan (Wis.) and Christopher Shays (Conn.), characterized the Agriculture Committee’s efforts as lackluster.

“What we’ve been given is sadly the best the Agriculture Committee can do,” Blumenauer asserted.

Lee and other liberals praised the Kind-Flake amendment for focusing billions more on nutrition programs for the poor, while conservatives such as Ryan like the amendment for cutting the deficit by billions.

“The agriculture bill is an enormous missed opportunity,” Ryan added. “When you look at what the Agriculture Committee actually did, there’s no real reform at all.”

The bipartisan group said it expects the amendment will receive significant support on the House floor, given its appeal across the diverse demographics.

“This is an issue that really does cut across ideological and partisan lines,” Kind said, and later added: “Whenever you put together the likes of Barbara Lee and Jeff Flake on a bill you can’t be that far off base.”

But that appeal remains to be seen. During the Democratic Caucus weekly meeting Tuesday, Kind presented the proposal only to receive a tepid response, according to some of those in attendance.

“So far it’s been a one-sided conversation,” Kind said of his decision to address the Caucus.

“It’s hard to read,” said Holt, a co-sponsor of the measure. He noted that he has not been asked to whip up support for the amendment.

But one lawmaker, Rep. Earl Pomeroy (D-N.D.), did raise objections to the amendment, which he later described as “a deeply threatening idea to family-farming agriculture.”

Pomeroy asserted that the amendment effectively would cut a government safety net for family-owned farms in the event of price swings or changes in crop production.

“It would economically hammer North Dakota,” he added.

The full House is expected to take up the farm bill Thursday, Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) said at a Tuesday press conference. He later declined to say whether he had discussed potential amendments with the Wisconsin lawmaker, but he praised Kind’s efforts on the legislation.

“Frankly, the bill would not be where it is in terms of reform if it had not been for Mr. Kind over the years,” Hoyer said.

While Kind praised Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) — stating she has done a “tremendous job” in engaging Members on the farm bill — he declined to divulge any discussion with leadership about the amendment but said he has received assurance that the amendment will reach the House floor.

In addition to cutting direct payments, Kind and Flake’s Fairness in Farm and Food Policy amendment would set a $250,000 income cap on farmers who get subsidies, down from $2.5 million today and $1 million in the committee bill.

Scott Haber of Environmental Defense said his group’s analysis showed 348 Congressional districts would get more support under the amendment.

But the Kind-Flake amendment faces a difficult task, with big farm interests launching a full-court press to kill it. Labeling it the “Kinda Flakey” amendment, commodity groups argue that it would decimate the farmer safety net and “leave farms in financial ruin.”

House Democratic leaders have supported the committee bill.

“They’re not going to like it, but it’s a critical first step,” Nadeam Elshami, a spokesman for Pelosi, said of the farm bill critics. “We’re going to have a full and open debate and members will have a chance to vote.”

Senate Democrats are waiting until after the August recess to move forward on their package. Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) commended Kind and Sen. Dick Lugar (R-Ind.) for the “Farm 21” legislation, on which the Fairness in Farm and Food Policy amendment is based, but cautioned that he wasn’t prepared to go that far.

Nicole Duran contributed to this report.