Presiding Bishop Urges Congressional Defeat, Presidential Veto, Of Farm Bill

May 8, 2008

In response to House and Senate leaders’ release of a final farm bill package today, the Most Reverend Katharine Jefferts Schori, Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church, released the following statement urging Congressional defeat, or Presidential veto, of the legislation:

As we are learning more each day about the widening food crisis around the world and the deepening economic problems threatening the poor and those living on the margins at home, it is fundamentally wrong for Congressional leaders to seek passage of a farm bill that harms American family farmers and significantly exacerbates poverty and suffering around the world.

Congress has been considering the United States farm bill for well over a year, debating broad legislation that governs our nation’s agriculture and food policy. During this long process, the Episcopal Church and more than a dozen other faith communities have urged Congress continually to reform the bill in a way that promotes equity for family farmers in the U.S., responds to hunger and need at home and abroad, and reforms our current farm-payment system in ways that remove the deep inequities that affect hundreds of millions of people living in poverty around the world. These calls fell on deaf ears, as both chambers defeated bipartisan amendments to bring fairness to the system. This week, after months of closed-door negotiations, House and Senate leaders unveiled a package that corrects none of the significant inequities in the current system and, remarkably, goes further than current law in exacerbating human need around the world. Particularly at a time when American attention is focused on the international food crisis, the farm bill “compromise” announced by House and Senate leadership is a moral failure of the highest order and worthy of Congressional defeat. Should the House and Senate pass this legislation, however, I urge President Bush – who has repeatedly expressed his opposition to the current program – to veto the bill.

While the legislation unveiled this week invests much-needed new money in nutrition programs that provide healthy meals to hungry people in the U.S., it does so at the expense of starving and impoverished people around the world, an unacceptable and false choice. Two areas are particularly troubling:

First, the legislation leaves intact the deeply unjust American farm-payment system, which has been ruled a violation of international trade law for the manner in which it cripples the ability of farmers in poor countries to sell their products fairly in world markets. Experts estimate that the subsidy system bleeds at least $75 billion each year from African nations alone and contributes significantly to the extreme poverty that kills 30,000 of God’s beloved people every day. Despite repeated calls from President Bush, U.S. faith communities, and trade experts, Congress has done nothing to reform this reprehensible system. Ironically, the very sorts of reforms that would be good for U.S. family farmers – a phasing out of taxpayer support to millionaire corporate farmers – would also correct the imbalances in our current world-trade system. In rejecting reform, Congress turns a blind eye to family farmers at home and to impoverished people overseas.

Second, and even more surprisingly, House and Senate negotiators unexpectedly slashed funding for a key program that provides meals for poor school children around the world. Known as the McGovern-Dole International Food-for-Education Program after its original Congressional sponsors, the initiative has for decades been an emblem of American generosity in response to human suffering, providing food to at least 3.4 million children in poor countries each year. This helps children – particularly girls – stay in school, improve their capacity for learning, and delay marriage and child bearing. Last year, House members debating an earlier version of the farm bill set funding for the program at $840 million over five years, a much-needed boost from its current $100 million funding level. Not only did House and Senate leaders totally negate that gain, they in fact slashed the current funding level to just $84 million. This action is simply inexplicable in the face of a worsening international food crisis. Congress cannot claim to do justice to poor families in the United States while actively shortchanging starving children in other parts of the world. Nor can Congress claim to contribute to a secure future for this nation when it fails to address the growing number of starving, undereducated, and underemployed young people, both here and abroad. Violence is born in the hopelessness of hunger and systemic injustice. Peacemaking begins in feeding the hungry.

“If you offer your food to the hungry, and satisfy the needs of the afflicted,” the prophet Isaiah tells us, “your light shall rise in the darkness, and your gloom shall be like the noonday. You shall be called the repairer of the breach, the restorer of streets to live in.” Sadly, the farm bill package backed by House and Senate leaders widens rather than heals the breaches in our world; and takes from, rather than provides for, the hungry and the afflicted. I urge all Episcopalians to ask their lawmakers to oppose this disastrous legislation, and call upon President Bush to reaffirm his willingness to block it from becoming law. Congress can, and must, do far better.