What do you give a rich man who has everything? If you're Congress and the rich man works in agribusiness, the answer is taxpayer money.
At a time of high food prices and rapidly rising farm incomes, Congress sent President Bush a farm bill last week that would grant direct payments to individual farmers with incomes as high as $750,000 and to farm couples who make as much as $1.5 million.
The $289 billion bill is made up mostly of nutrition programs-food stamps get a big increase-but it includes about $40 billion for farm subsidies and billions more for farmers who idle their land. Congress larded on plenty of pork, as well, including tax breaks for horse breeders in Kentucky and sales of federal land for ski resorts in Vermont.
Bush vetoed the bill, saying its costs were too high and that he wanted to limit direct payments to farmers who make $200,000 or less. But the bill passed both the House and the Senate with huge bipartisan majorities, and the president's veto last week appeared headed for an easy override. "Back home in Montana, we say you shouldn't bring a knife to a gun fight," Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., told the Associated Press. "We've got the votes to override the president and make the farm bill law, and that's what this Congress will do."
Defenders of the bill, such as the American Farm Bureau Federation, point out that production costs for farmers (including prices for fuel, feed, and fertilizer) are at all-time highs. "The three-legged safety net of direct payments, marketing loans and counter-cyclical programs provides our farmers an essential level of financial security at a time when their markets and expenses are so volatile," said Farm Bureau President Bob Stallman.
But the concurrent boom in commodity prices has more than offset those higher costs for many farmers. The USDA projects that net farm income will reach $92.3 billion this year, a big increase over recent years (see box). Average household income for farmers, meanwhile, is expected to reach $89,434 this year, up from $84,159 last year and from $68,597 five years ago.
The override of the president's veto will make the farm bill law, but it may not be the last word this year on farm policy. With both Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton supporting the legislation, bill opponent John McCain signaled that he may make it a campaign issue this fall.
In an aggressive speech on May 19, McCain linked his opposition to the bill with a larger campaign against corporate welfare and special interest politics. "It would be hard," said McCain, "to find any single bill that better sums up why so many Americans in both parties are so disappointed in the conduct of their government, and at times so disgusted by it."
2008 (projected): $92.3 billion
2007: $88.7 billion
10-year average: $61.1 billion