On Wednesday morning (May 21), just as he’d promised for weeks, President Bush vetoed the nearly $300 billion farm bill passed overwhelmingly by Congress.

“I veto this bill fully aware that it is rare for a stand-alone farm bill not to receive the President's signature, but my action today is not without precedent,” Bush said in a letter to Congress. “In 1956, President Eisenhower stood firmly on principle, citing high crop subsidies and too much government control of farm programs among the reasons for his veto. President Eisenhower wrote in his veto message, ‘Bad as some provisions of this bill are, I would have signed it if in total it could be interpreted as sound and good for farmers and the nation.’ For similar reasons, I am vetoing the bill before me today.”

Shortly after Bush rejected the bill, deputy USDA secretary Chuck Conner told reporters “this massive spending package — coming at a time of escalating food prices and gas closing on nearly $4 per gallon — in our opinion is simply unacceptable. The President stated time and again that he would not accept a farm bill that fails to reform our farm programs at a time when farm income and crop prices are setting records. He has remained true to his word.

“It is irresponsible to ask the American taxpayer, who is struggling to make ends meet, to subsidize farm couples and those who make more than $1 million a year. Simply put, this is bad policy and it is unfair policy.”

Conner insisted that as more details of the 1,700-page “spending bill” surface “we learn more about the taxpayer abuses and unsound policies in the bill. Just recently, it was brought to light that a $170 million earmark for the salmon industry was slipped into the bill in the dead of night. It joins other egregious earmarks.”

In his letter, Bush listed some of those: “$175 million to address water issues for desert lakes; $250 million for a 400,000-acre land purchase from a private owner; funding and authority for the non-competitive sale of national forest land to a ski resort; and $382 million earmarked for a specific watershed.”

Before calling on Congress to extend current law, Conner claimed last-minute changes to the farm bill had been made. This includes the “so-called ACRE farm subsidy program that will likely result in tens of billions of dollars of new government outlays in the future…Under our cost analysis, if we return to $3 per bushel corn — and that’s much higher than the five-year average market price for corn — this bill would have an additional $10 billion of outlays just for one crop. We’d have similar proportions for wheat, soybeans and rice.”

Conner was asked if the White House was lobbying pro-farm bill Republicans to switch their vote. He didn’t respond directly but admitted sustaining the veto “will be an uphill climb and we’ve been saying that. Certainly, nothing in the last few days made us think differently … We’ve been making our case to individual members of Congress. We’ve been making it in a very public way trying to make sure before they cast a vote to override that members of Congress understand the details of the bill.

“I think we’ve managed to do that. They understand a lot more of the details than they did when first voting for the bill. I might add that initial passage was voted on less than 24 hours after the bill language became available.”

Despite White House charges, Republican farm bill conferees weren’t persuaded.

Georgia Sen. Saxby Chambliss, ranking member of the Senate Agriculture Committee, said he is “deeply disappointed that (Bush) has accepted the imprudent counsel of his advisors and has rejected the farm bill … In any bill of this magnitude all parties must accept some compromise.”

Another Republican conferee, Louisiana Rep. Charles Boustany, said not only does the new bill have increased oversight but also “is a responsible piece of legislation for the American taxpayer, and it is a sound bill for our nation’s farmers and ranchers. I wish the President wasn’t wrong on this, but I will work to override the veto to ensure the farm bill becomes law.”

Unsurprisingly, conferees from the majority party were just as dismissive of the Bush veto.

“For reasons passing understanding, (the Bush) administration refuses to recognize the will of the American people,” said North Dakota Sen. Kent Conrad. “To veto this farm bill that features needed reform while providing for the hungry and our children is disappointing.”

By vetoing the bill, the White House “has shown a willing disregard for rural America. It has turned its back on the hungry and undercut American farmers and ranchers. The (Bush) administration has demonstrated an inability to lead on this issue.

“I look forward to overriding the President’s veto and ensuring this quality farm bill becomes law.”

Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin, chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee said with all the “critical investments and reforms in this bill that have won support from both parties, from every region of the country, and from rural and urban members of Congress alike, the president’s veto of this measure is an attempt to deny America these forward-looking initiatives at a time when the country needs them the most.”

A veto override vote is expected in the next few days. A successful override requires two-thirds of the House and Senate.

e-mail: dbennett@farmpress.com