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WHO'S FEEDING WHOM?



Published: Tue, November 27, 2001 @ 12:00 a.m.



WHO'S FEEDING WHOM?

Washington Post: You know the Democrats are the party that cares most about the poor because they tell you so, world without end, and bask in the glow. Then a character test in the form of the farm bill comes along and gives the claim the lie.

The House earlier this year passed what its critics rightly regard as a hopelessly retrograde reauthorization of the federal farm programs. The Agriculture Committee had been given some $70 billion to play with over the next 10 years -- money to allocate among the farm and federal nutrition programs under its jurisdiction, atop the amounts provided by existing law. The committee allocated about $3.6 billion -- some 5 percent -- to the food stamp and other feeding programs for the poor. The rest was reserved for farmers -- but not, it turns out, needy farmers. The programs are such that the bulk would go to the largest producers of just a few basic crops. From 1996 to 2000, half of all support payments went to just 5 percent of such producers. More than $35 billion was showered on just 120,000 farmers. The bill would perpetuate that pattern. The measure was so offensive that the Bush administration broke with the House Republican leadership to oppose it.

Then came the Senate's turn to act. There, the ranking Republican on the agriculture committee, Richard Lugar, a longtime critic of the farm programs, proposed a significant redirection of the money in the House bill -- less for production, more for conservation and nutrition, and with the production money better spread. A few states would lose money, but most would gain, normally an important consideration in the Senate. The food stamp increase was to be $10 billion over 10 years.

Farm state votes: That begins to be a reasonable amount of money, given the needs the stamp program is meant to meet. But the Democrats, led by Chairman Tom Harkin and Majority Leader Tom Daschle, both from farm states, choked on it. They want to maximize farm supports -- in part because they view their party as in a bidding war for farm state votes -- and that meant less left over to feed poor people. Their bill provides a little over $6 billion for food stamps. Mr. Lugar forced a vote. All but two Republicans sided with him; all but one Democrat, Paul Wellstone, sided with Mr. Harkin, and Mr. Harkin won.

No matter that the food stamps program more than any other can be said to set the national income floor. It is the purest welfare program the government maintains; to qualify, all you need to be is poor. No matter, either, that it has taken a beating in recent years, most notably in the 1996 welfare reform. Benefits were cut, and in other ways the program is much weaker than before. In the early 1990s, three-fourths of those eligible received benefits; now barely more than half do.

Mr. Lugar will again offer a version of his proposal on the floor. It would do far more than the Democrats' proposal to benefit the poor. Non-needy farmers would get less so needy people could get more. Agriculture and the environment both would benefit. It sounds to us like a pretty clear choice. Which side will the Democrats be on?




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