As the new Farm Bill has been passed by Congress and is expected to be approved by President Bush, The Wall Street Journal is voicing its disapproval. It proclaims: “All that rooting, snooting noise you hear in the distance, dear taxpayers, is the sound of election year, farm state politics rolling out of the U.S. Congress. We know that democracy isn’t cheap, but this is ridiculous.”

The WSJ’s fury is quite novel. Widely recognized as the most conservative of our national press, it is quite natural for it to blame Congress as a whole for the features of the bill that it dislikes. But any calm view of the matter would recognize that the bill as an important start for easing the crisis that has been bankrupting farmers.

Of course the WSJ instinctively blames the Congress, but it was the Republican House conferees that insisted on weakening some of the best measures and inserting the very ones to which the WSJ is objecting. For example, the WSJ’s loudest complaint is over continued enormous subsidies to giant farms. The Democrats proposed $275,000 as the highest subsidy permitted for one farm per year; the compromise forced by the Republicans is $360,000. Even this higher figure is less than half of the past government handouts to a few agribusinesses.

Other damaging changes forced by Republican conferees were the dropping of a provision disallowing packinghouses from owning beef cattle more than seven days before slaughter. This would have put an end to the recent development of packer-owned feed lots containing many thousands of cattle, holding them for up to the entire feeding and fattening process of three months or more. This has two results: a concentration of manure that stinks up whole communities and denies its spread on fields as natural fertilizer, plus replacing a whole division of farming that raises yearlings until fit for slaughter.

Republicans also killed a proposal to permit American banks to finance shipment of farm products to Cuba.

Rare indeed is the WSJ at odds with Republican policy. But the WSJ said it right: “It is the sound of election.” The Republicans must win the farm vote to get back the Senate.

This fall a new Congress will be elected. Both parties know the farm and rural vote is decisive. Both are keenly aware that in the presidential election, the Republicans carried a swath of Great Plains states from North Dakota to Texas. Had Gore won the three electoral votes of either of the Dakotas, he would be president today.

This explains why the Bush administration made a complete flip-flop from its original position. Only last fall, Secretary of Agriculture Ann Veneman issued a 120-page statement that warned that Congressional Farm Bill proposals cause excess crop production, inflate land rents and slant some 70 percent of the subsidies to big agriculture, shortchanging smaller farms. But today she announces: “From what we have seen today, we’ll certainly recommend that the President sign the bill.”

It should be noted that the Democrats are already developing plans for correcting some of the bill’s bad features.

Lem Harris is a member of the Communist Party USA’s Farm and Rural Life Commission. He can be reached at pww@pww.org

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