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Farm reform fizzles in Congress

Despite many calls for change, the Senate's $286 billion bill is likely to continue the status quo.

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They rallied around a single ideal, looking for ways to grow America's food in a cheaper, more sustainable, more equitable way.

Conservatives, liberals, budget hawks, environmentalists, two senior senators, and the Bush administration all pushed to restructure federal agriculture policy. But despite unprecedented calls for reform, the farm bill now before the Senate looks likely to be virtually an extension of the current law.

The $286 billion bill may not even pass this year, because of a standoff between Democrats and Republicans over how many amendments to allow. But when it does pass, the 2007 farm bill will be a triumph of farm lobbies and entrenched politics on Capitol Hill.

"This is special-interest politics at its finest," says Sara Hopper, an attorney with Environmental Defense, one of a number of groups who have been pushing reform to the current subsidy system. "We have defenders of the status quo who are very good at defending the status quo."

There is still a possibility that the bill could gain new momentum and pass this week. A cloture vote was expected Thursday that might end the stalemate. But at press time, the bill still appeared stalled in a clash of party leadership, with Republicans determined to have an open amendment process and Democrats countering that that would lead to a "Christmas tree" bill with senators trying to tack on amendments dealing with the estate tax, energy issues, and Iraq, among other things.

But after months of talk about the need for real change in the way the subsidy system works, the traditional payment structures are still in place. The few reform amendments with good prospects include one that would cap farmers' total subsidy payments at $250,000 and require that they be "actively engaged" in farming. Another amendment would reform crop insurance and lower its cost to taxpayers.

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