WASHINGTON — Buried in a massive farm bill moving through the Senate is money for handmade cheese, repairs to historic barns and programs for stressed-out farmers — spending that critics say is wasteful.
For that and other reasons the $286 billion bill has been excoriated as too expensive by conservatives, taxpayer advocates and the Bush administration, which is threatening to veto it.
Still, the five-year legislation remains politically popular in Congress, where lawmakers see ample opportunity to include policies and projects that help their states as they head toward an election year. And those who object to the bill's large tab often end up supporting it for fear of opposing programs popular with their voters.
"People are literally getting bought off for peanuts," said Scott Ellis of Taxpayers for Common Sense, which opposes the legislation and most farm subsidies.
Sen. Judd Gregg of New Hampshire, the top Republican on the Budget Committee, says it's bad fiscal policy.
Artisan cheese and historic barns
"I'm not sure many Americans would agree that stress assistance programs for farmers or artisan cheese centers are a good use of their hard-earned dollars," Gregg said.
Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., has said he will offer amendments to strike many of the extra provisions, including those for the handmade cheese and historic barns.
Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., is one of two senators behind the cheese provision, which authorizes congressional spending committees to pay for the promotion of artisan, or handmade, cheese. Vermont is home to the greatest number of artisan cheesemakers per capita in the United States, according to the Vermont Institute for Artisan Cheese.
Leahy spokesman David Carle defends the idea, saying artisan cheese production is a promising new sector of the dairy industry.
Sen. Kent Conrad, D-N.D., a member of the Agriculture Committee and one of the bill's authors, says the rehabilitation and repair of historic barns would help tourism in agricultural parts of New England. And the stress assistance would help farmers and ranchers deal with volatile markets, he said.
"Farmers tend to be isolated and they deal with so much stress," he said.
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Despite some of the more obscure provisions, Ellis says his group is most concerned with the larger tab — billions of dollars in annual subsidies for producers of corn, wheat, rice, cotton and other major crops.
"The farm bill is a legislative battleship that you cannot turn around quickly," he said.
The White House has threatened to veto the bill, as President Bush did when the House farm bill passed in July. The Agriculture Department has complained the bill does not do enough to limit subsidies to wealthy farmers.
Conrad and other supporters of the bill, now stalled in the Senate over a partisan procedural dispute, point to an attempt to scale back those programs, including limits on the amount of subsidies paid to those who don't make a large portion of their income on farming. The bill also increases nutrition benefits for the poor and for rural communities, and adds dollars that protect environmentally sensitive farm land.
"One thing people don't realize is that 66 percent of the bill is nutrition, and that goes to every corner of the country," said Conrad.
But the bill includes millions of dollars for new and expanded subsidies that benefit states from coast to coast, including money for asparagus producers to pay for revenue losses — assistance not available for many other crops — and new dollars for large chickpeas and peanuts.
Montana Sen. Jon Tester, a Democrat and farmer who was narrowly elected last year, added money for camelina, an oilseed used for biofuels that is grown in his state. He says the crop grows well in Montana because it doesn't need a lot of moisture.
"I think every one of the programs has a direct benefit for the population, whether it's food security or energy," he said.
Tester is also a supporter of a $5 billion provision that would help farmers recover from weather-related losses. Much of that money will be directed to Montana and the Dakotas, where low rainfalls have destroyed many crops in recent years.
That provision was added by Montana Sen. Max Baucus, the Democratic chairman of the Finance Committee and a candidate for re-election next year.
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