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Pondering the 'Razorback Subsidy' 

This story encompasses everything right, wrong or in between with our politics. Key characters range from top White House officials to Arkansas farmers. So let's tell it.

U.S. Sen. Blanche Lincoln is an at-risk Democratic incumbent recently ascended to the chairmanship of the Senate Agriculture Committee. Thus she is positioned to deliver largesse to the state's farmers.

The federal Agriculture Department has regulatory authority from 2008 to help farmers formally determined to have been beset by weather-related losses. But, because the bureaucracy works slowly, the department is still in the process of designing implementation. 

Lincoln tires of waiting and puts a rider in the small business bill directing $1.5 billion to special disaster relief to farmers. The rider defines eligibility through a percentage-loss calculation for crops in 2009. 

The formula happens to make large Arkansas farmers the leading recipients. Big Arkansas farmers would see their subsidies increased by 50 percent or more. Call it the "Razorback Subsidy."

Lincoln's Republican opponent, U.S. Rep. John Boozman, joins nearly all Republicans in opposing the idea, citing this mantra: "It's not paid for." 

Republicans are banking — smartly so far — on the premise that pivotal independent voters are weary of the deficit explosion and determined to resist the politics as usual that has helped cause it. 

By this irony, Lincoln risks deeper political trouble every time she successfully directs more money to the state.

Boozman stresses that he loves Arkansas farmers, one of whom, Stanley Reed of Marianna, is his campaign chairman. By one calculation, Boozman has a higher rating from the Farm Bureau than Lincoln, mostly over trade issues.

So Lincoln picks up the phone and the caller is Rahm Emanuel, chief of staff to President Obama. He tells her not to worry because the White House will direct the Office of Management and Budget to find a way to get her farmers that $1.5 billion out of existing money in the Agriculture Department through administrative means.

He does this because, as it turns out, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, whom Lincoln never counts on as much of an ally, is going to excise her $1.5 billion from the small business bill. He's trying to nab a few Republican votes and head off a filibuster. A few Republicans have indicated Lincoln's rider is their main objection.

Emanuel needs Lincoln to stay on board with the small business bill. The White House would prefer not to undercut her main political calling card back home. Anyway, the White House owes her because she cast one deciding procedural vote for health care reform.

The Senate is not democratic, for reasons beyond the 60-vote filibuster rule. Committees can work openly and vote in public to draft bills that Reid has the singular authority to change arbitrarily, as in this case. 

Republicans filibuster the bill anyway, finding something else objectionable, because that's just the way they are.

Boozman says he can't imagine how or by what authority the White House intends to find and redirect an extra $1.5 billion within the Agriculture Department. This circumvents Congress and the law, he says. We can't keep living on the Visa card, he says.

Lincoln boasts that she's the squeaky wheel and that she can squeak a little louder because she's the agriculture chairman. 

Her staff produces a list of 19 administratively executed disaster expenditures for farmers over the years that had no direct bill from the Congress, including one for $900 million in 2004 for livestock losses.

So here's your political choice: 

You can go with the highly placed senator who can bring special bucks to Arkansas farmers. 

Or you can go with her Republican challenger who says we can't keep finding ways to work the system to spend a borrowed billion here and a borrowed billion there.

Oh, and a postscript, typically an afterthought, some might say: Black farmers have been waiting for years for more than a billion dollars in agreed-to compensatory USDA payments for past discriminatory practices in farm aid. Nobody has been able to find for them the amount of money that Emanuel assured Lincoln the OMB could gather up for her.

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