Nobody has ever accused President George Bush of being apolitical. In his relatively short term in office, the president has seemingly ignored his principles and signed legislation that satisfies the political needs of his party.
May's signing of a 10-year, $190 billion farm bill that expands subsidies to growers seems designed to boost Republican political fortunes in farm states in a year in which the GOP is hoping to retain a slim majority in the House of Representatives.
The bill does several things, according to MSNBC. It raises subsidy rates for grain and cotton growers, restores subsidies for wool and honey producers, revives a target-price system abolished in 1996 and provides new payments for milk, peanuts, lentils and dry peas. In addition, the bill increases by 80% spending on land-conservation programs that will benefit livestock farms and fruit and vegetable growers, groups who have historically received little from the federal government.
According to the president, the bill would aid small farmers facing economic ruin and save the family farm. It is a safety net, he said, designed to safeguard "American farm and ranch families" whose "livelihood depends on things they cannot control: the weather, crop disease, uncertain pricing."
But the bill has a lot more to do with large growers and producers and with Bush's interest in boosting the fortunes of Republicans from the farm states in the Midwest and orchard owners in Florida. Opponents -- including some environmental groups, conservative Republicans and some Democrats -- say the bill amounts to a raid of the treasury, while foreign trade representatives are up in arms over what they are calling an unfair trade advantage.
"This is a disingenuous attempt by many farm state lawmakers to bring home the bacon in an election year, and represents little more than a politically motivated grab bag of special interest handouts" said Joe Theissen, executive director of Taxpayers for Common Sense. "This is the biggest corporate welfare handout in recent history."
It does so by tossing money at farmers, especially the large farming combines that have come to dominate the food production and processing industry. It will lead to increased production and a glutted market that is likely to drive more small farmers off their farms.
This kind of legislative bribery is fast becoming a hallmark of the Bush administration. It is one in a series of about faces, as the president has imposed tariffs and offered subsidies to constituencies in states the GOP hopes to control in November.
In March, Bush imposed tariffs on imported steel that have led to a challenge at the World Trade Organization by European leaders and the imposition of retaliatory tariffs on American exports. Other tariffs have been imposed on Canadian lumber.
Don't get me wrong, Midwest farmers do need help, as do workers in the steel and lumber industries. But what we are witnessing is the wholesale selling of votes by the Bush administration in an attempt to capture key Senate and House races in the fall -- races that could shift the power of balance in the Senate and the House back to the GOP.
Democrats currently hold a 50-49 majority in the Senate (there is one independent) and the GOP is hoping that the farm bill will help Republicans in states like Iowa, where they are mounting a challenge to Democratic Sen. Tom Harkin. They are also hoping to stave off a challenge to their slim lead in the House and to possibly increase it.
The president's willingness to abandon his principles -- he attacked farm subsidies repeatedly during his presidential campaign as unwise and wasteful, likely to result in glutted markets and falling prices -- may win his party some votes, but it will cost taxpayers a whole lot of cash in the long run.
Hank Kalet is a poet and managing editor of The Cranbury Press and The South Brunswick Post. He can be reached via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Editor's Note: Kalet has a right to his opinions, but on balance we think the farm bill, which was written by Sen. Tom Harkin, will help small farmers. See "Farm Bill Compromise: Take what you can get," 6/1/02 TPP.