Just as he'd promised for weeks, on May 21, President Bush vetoed the near $300 billion farm bill that Congress passed in a landslide vote. At least that's what everyone thought until it was discovered that Title 3, a 34-page section on trade, wasn't included in the bill sent to Bush.
The surprising omission, attributed to a gaffe made during the bill's printing process, sent majority party leadership scrambling for solutions. The mistake also took the sting out of the House's 316-108 quick override of Bush's veto. The Senate followed with an override of its own, 82-13.
The flawed bill sent to Bush shows Congress “can even screw up spending the taxpayers' money unwisely,” noted Dana Perino, White House spokesperson.
There were early concerns about how best to legally square the clerical blunder. Despite calls for Congress to pass the farm bill again — and send it to Bush unabridged — Nevada Sen. Harry Reid, Democratic majority leader, claimed such an approach was unnecessary. Excluding Title 3, the new farm bill is now law and should be immediately implemented, said Reid after consulting with constitutional law experts.
At press time, it appears the Senate will soon approve the trade title in a stand-alone bill. As Congress isn't in session the week of May 26, a complete farm bill won't be in place until at least early June.
On May 21, after vetoing the new farm legislation, Bush wrote Congress and acknowledged, “it is rare for a stand-alone farm bill not to receive the president's signature, but my action today is not without precedent. In 1956, President Eisenhower stood firmly on principle, citing high crop subsidies and too much government control of farm programs among the reasons for his veto. President Eisenhower wrote in his veto message, ‘Bad as some provisions of this bill are, I would have signed it if in total it could be interpreted as sound and good for farmers and the nation.’ For similar reasons, I am vetoing the bill before me today.”
Later, USDA Deputy Secretary Chuck Conner told reporters, “This massive spending package — coming at a time of escalating food prices and gas closing on nearly $4 per gallon — in our opinion is simply unacceptable. The president stated time and again that he would not accept a farm bill that fails to reform our farm programs at a time when farm income and crop prices are setting records. He has remained true to his word.
“It is irresponsible to ask the American taxpayer, who is struggling to make ends meet, to subsidize farm couples and those who make more than $1 million a year. Simply put, this is bad policy and it is unfair policy.”
Conner insisted that as more details of the “spending bill” surface, “we learn more about the taxpayer abuses and unsound policies in the bill. Just recently, it was brought to light that a $170 million earmark for the salmon industry was slipped into the bill in the dead of night. It joins other egregious earmarks.”
In his letter, Bush listed some of those: “$175 million to address water issues for desert lakes; $250 million for a 400,000-acre land purchase from a private owner; funding and authority for the noncompetitive sale of national forest land to a ski resort; and $382 million earmarked for a specific watershed.”
Before calling on Congress to extend current law, Conner claimed last-minute changes to the farm bill had been made. This includes the “so-called ACRE farm subsidy program that will likely result in tens of billions of dollars of new government outlays in the future …. Under our cost analysis, if we return to $3 per bushel corn — and that's much higher than the five-year average market price for corn — this bill would have an additional $10 billion of outlays just for one crop. We'd have similar proportions for wheat, soybeans and rice.”
Despite White House charges — and evidenced by lopsided override vote totals — Bush's fellow Republicans weren't persuaded.
Georgia Sen. Saxby Chambliss, ranking member of the Senate Agriculture Committee, said he was “deeply disappointed that (Bush) has accepted the imprudent counsel of his advisors and has rejected the farm bill …. In any bill of this magnitude all parties must accept some compromise.”
Another Republican conferee, Louisiana Rep. Charles Boustany, said not only does the new bill have increased oversight but also “is a responsible piece of legislation for the American taxpayer, and it is a sound bill for our nation's farmers and ranchers. I wish the president wasn't wrong on this, but I will work to override the veto to ensure the farm bill becomes law.”
Unsurprisingly, conferees from the majority party were just as dismissive of the Bush veto.
Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin, chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee, said with all the “critical investments and reforms in this bill that have won support from both parties, from every region of the country, and from rural and urban members of Congress alike, the president's veto of this measure is an attempt to deny America these forward-looking initiatives at a time when the country needs them the most.”
“For reasons passing understanding, (the Bush) administration refuses to recognize the will of the American people,” said North Dakota Sen. Kent Conrad. “To veto this farm bill that features needed reform while providing for the hungry and our children is disappointing.”
By vetoing the bill, the White House “has shown a willing disregard for rural America. It has turned its back on the hungry and undercut American farmers and ranchers. The (Bush) administration has demonstrated an inability to lead on this issue.”
Any doubts that farm organizations supported the 2008 farm bill conference report were laid aside when more than 1,000 of them sent a letter to Congress urging an override of the president's veto. The groups, led by the National Farmers Union, also mounted a massive telephone and e-mail campaign.
The National Farm Union's Tom Buis, who was credited by House leaders with being one of the prime behind-the-scene movers on the farm bill, summed up the feeling of most farm organizations. “There is widespread support for the farm bill, both across this great nation and in Congress as we saw in last week's super-majority votes,” he said. “While it is disappointing to see the president's veto, we are hopeful members of Congress will listen to their constituents and override this veto.”
The 1,054-group coalition that signed the May 21 letter far surpassed the record 557 groups that called on Congress to pass the farm bill the week of May 12. The coalition represented farm, conservation, commodity, specialty crop, nutrition, anti-hunger and consumer groups, cooperatives, religious organizations and others.
Among those writing to Congress was the National Cotton Council, whose chairman, Larry McClendon, said that while the farm bill conference report was not perfect, it retained an effective safety net.
“Although prices for some commodities are currently at attractive levels, farmers are planting at a time of unprecedented increases in input costs with no commodity policy in place,” said McClendon, a cotton producer from Marianna, Ark. “In some areas, farmers will soon harvest crops for which there is no loan program in place.
“The bill's opponents have offered no viable alternatives after nearly two years of debate. There is simply no option but to override the veto and put predictable policy in place for farmers, lenders and rural communities.”
The NCC emphasized that the legislation includes many of the cotton industry's recommendations and priorities: improving market orientation, competitiveness and flow to market plus providing important financial assistance to domestic textile manufacturers to spur investment and helping maintain good paying jobs in an industry competing with heavily subsidized imports.
National Corn Grower Association leaders also supported the override, while defending the Average Crop Revenue Enhancement (ACRE) program against Bush administration attacks.
“We are gratified that the farm bill received bipartisan support from the House,” said National Corn Growers Association president Ron Litterer. “This is a bill that producers have needed for some time.”
Authors of the coalition letter said 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, and enhances 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. 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.”