Republicans Fumble the Farm Bill

Posted: Jun 01, 2008 12:00 AM
Republicans Fumble the Farm Bill

When lawmakers return to Capitol Hill this week, a group of House Republicans known as the FIT Force will unveil an effort to expose Washington waste. Led by Rep. Thaddeus McCotter (R-Mich.), this newly formed Fiscal Integrity Task Force wants to hold congressional spendthrifts accountable for their excesses.

McCotter’s goal is admirable—and one that all Americans, regardless of ideology, should support. Unfortunately, the group’s timing couldn’t be worse. That’s because McCotter and half of the FIT Force members themselves abandoned fiscal integrity less than two weeks ago. That’s when they voted to override President Bush’s veto of the farm bill, a $307 billion monstrosity that will cost the average U.S. family about $5,650.

Farm income has doubled since the 2002 farm bill. Commodity prices are the highest ever. Yet Congress couldn’t bring itself to not increase subsidies for millionaire farmers.

A majority of House Republicans joined nearly all Democrats to hop on this gravy train, despite opposition from Bush and the party’s putative standard bearer, Sen. John McCain, a longtime critic of farm subsidies.

Despite the FIT Force defections on the farm bill, McCotter intends to plow ahead with his “comprehensive assault on Washington waste.”

“Excessive spending has rightfully raised doubts about the fiscal integrity of the federal budget and, most importantly, concern by taxpayers for their family budgets,” McCotter said in a press release less than 24 hours after voting to override Bush’s veto.

The co-chairman of the FIT Force, Rep. Kevin Brady (R-Tex.), was also among those supporting parochial interests. In fact, nine other FIT Force members voted to override the veto, as did Minority Whip Roy Blunt (Mo.) and Republican Conference Chairman Adam Putnam (Fla.). Even with a scorecard, the farm vote made it hard to tell the difference between self-proclaimed fiscal watchdogs and the traditional tax-and-spenders of the left.

Republican Chief Deputy Whip Eric Cantor (Va.), who opposed the farm bill and voted to uphold Bush’s veto, sounded beleaguered after his Republican colleagues dug themselves a deeper grave. “The vote on the farm bill has definitely been a challenge, if you look at it as regaining our fiscal brand,” Cantor told the Washington Post.

The situation wasn’t much better in the Senate, where the GOP leader, Mitch McConnell (Ky.), chose home-state pork over principle. Granted, McConnell’s tough re-election bid and parochial interests made it unlikely for him to oppose the bill, but his lack of leadership led 34 other Republicans to vote for the override.

If there’s a silver lining, it’s that the titular conservatives who supported the farm bill will likely get another chance to do the right thing—at least when it comes to one section of the bill. Because of a clerical error, Title III of the legislation, which deals with trade, was never sent to Bush. Despite the mistake, Democrats moved forward with the override vote, knowing they would have to do something about the missing 34 pages after their Memorial Day recess.

A coalition led by the National Taxpayers Union and Citizens Against Government Waste hopes to convince lawmakers to vote against the missing section of the bill to demonstrate at least some commitment to fiscal responsibility. The taxpayer watchdogs cite several objectionable provisions:

• It spends $200 million annually on a corporate welfare program that gives crop manufacturers and food processors taxpayer money to market their products overseas.

• It props up domestic logging interests with a “U.S. Importer Declaration Program” that would keep out low-cost timber products from international competitors.

• It requires USAID to contribute up to $60 million to a doomsday “seed bank” in Norway.

• It funds the McGovern-Dole Food for Education program at a cost of $84 million for child development and food security in foreign countries.

Although sustaining a veto on this title would certainly send a message in support of fiscal restraint, it would probably be too little too late for Republicans to “regain their fiscal brand.”

Of course, the same can be said about Bush’s sudden desire to get tough with Congress on spending. Had he played hardball at the time of the last farm bill in 2002, the GOP might not be in this predicament today.

Creation of the FIT Force shows that McCotter and his Republican colleagues understand the need to take back the brand of fiscal responsibility. However, this is a full-time responsibility and needs to be treated as such. The farm bill was most certainly a lost opportunity.