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Agricultural handouts

As food prices soar, Congress on Wednesday approved wealth transfers to benefit the nation’s most powerful welfare constituency: farmers.

The bill guarantees that consumers — struggling to make ends meet — will continue to get the shaft as they are forced to subsidize rich agricultural producers to the tune of billions of dollars.

The $290 billion farm bill symbolizes everything that is wrong with Washington. At a time when commodity prices are at all-time highs, Congress has agreed to increase subsidies for those who produce corn, wheat, sugar and virtually every other agricultural product.

And it wasn’t enough to just lavish more taxpayer largess on those who have nestled at the federal teat for years. No, the 2008 farm bill creates new welfare programs for fruit and vegetable producers who have previously been left to sink or swim based solely on the marketplace.

To gain the support of big-city Democrats, the bill also includes increases in food stamp spending and emergency food aid.

The connection between higher food costs and the bill’s price supports, protectionism and handouts was obviously lost on the majority of our Washington representatives, who crave buying votes over enacting rational policy initiatives.

Members of Congress couldn’t even bring themselves to seriously limit direct cash payments to millionaire farmers. Defenders of the measure say it would cap federal payments to individuals with more than $750,000 in annual farm income. But loopholes allow married farmers who make more than $1.5 million to still cash in.

Citizens Against Government Waste, a beltway fiscal watchdog group, notes that the legislation “continues to dole out $5.2 billion annually in direct payments to individuals (many of whom are no longer farming) without regard to prices or income.”

Kudos to Nevada Republican Rep. Dean Heller, who cast a “no” vote. Unfortunately, he was alone among the state’s delegation. Democratic Rep. Shelley Berkley and Republican Rep. Jon Porter both signed off on the legislation.

Rep. Berkley, who holds a safe seat representing urban Las Vegas, deserves some heat for lining up with the agricultural welfare queens. But Rep. Porter merits even more fire, as he has apparently decided that to win re-election in November he must jettison his party’s principles and reinvent himself as a moderate Democrat.

That could be a fatal miscalculation. If he fails to survive this fall, he might look back with regret on having turned his back on his district’s fiscally conservative Republicans by embracing boondoggles such as a massive expansion of a new federal health insurance entitlement for middle-class kids and the farm bill.

President Bush should follow through on his veto threat, even though the farm bill passed with more than enough votes to override. Make the congressional piggies push that green button once again.

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