Cardoza, McNerney play parts to get farm bill that helps valley

06/01/2008 3:11 AM

06/01/2008 3:12 AM

The price of gas goes up daily. Every neighborhood has a dying lawn or two where only foreclosure signs are sprouting. The occupation in Iraq drags on and veterans aren't being taken care of at home. A lot on the national scene makes us angry.

So it might be a little surprising to see Dennis Cardoza and Jerry McNerney so upbeat in separate visits to Modesto on Wednesday.

While their paths did not cross, both were delighted to talk about the same thing -- the ability of Congress to override President Bush's veto of the 2008 farm bill.

Cardoza, in fact, orchestrated a press conference at the Stanislaus County Farm Bureau offices where ag representatives took turns praising his handiwork. Among them, a beekeeper, a dairyman, an apricot grower and an almond grower took turns heaping adulation on Cardoza.

He earned it. The Merced Democrat played a key role in securing farm bill money for California -- the No. 1 ag state in the nation, but far down the list of states receiving ag money. While few farmers around here get -- or want -- direct payments, they're happy to see the fruits and nuts they grow going into school lunches for poor kids and into food banks. They deserve help in keeping our state's water clean and for embarking on projects to remove particles and soot from the air. And they're delighted to see money spent to fight pests that harm their crops.

Why, then, have nearly all the nation's editorial writers excoriated the five-year, $285 billion law and praised President Bush for vetoing it? From their criticisms, you'd think that farmers are gutting Fort Knox and kicking sick kids on their way out of the vault. Perhaps those writers need some perspective.

"The president says there's not enough reform in this bill," said Cardoza. "But in 2002, the president was happy to sign a farm bill that spent $2 on nutrition for every $1 that went to commodity subsidies. In 2008, this bill spends $5 for nutrition for every $1 spent on commodity subsidies -- and they're angry?"

Cardoza was the only Californian in the final negotiations -- a profoundly complex procedure requiring the skill, patience and finesse of a seasoned mudwrestler. Still, Cardoza got help when he needed it. Sen. Barbara Boxer, for instance, used a "hold" in the Senate to block an end-run around California's concerns.

"She's not very big, but she's who you want on your side in a bar fight," said Cardoza.

McNerney played his part when $15 million to benefit asparagus growers was cut out in the final moments.

"Dennis told me to tell Nancy Pelosi that if she wanted me to still be here next year that we had to have that money for the asparagus program," said McNerney, whose district includes most of California's asparagus growers. "And the next day, the money was back in the bill."

Congress might have to muster the political will to overcome a promised veto on another issue -- this one close to McNerney's heart: improved benefits for veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan. "It's what I really want to see," said McNerney, whose son enlisted after Sept. 11. "I think we'll override it."

McNerney knows his Republican-leaning district supports him on this one.

Though he lives in Pleasanton, McNerney has conducted 30 "Congressman on the Corner" gatherings across the district.

"In a way, I have a challenging district -- and that's good," he said. "I have to work really, really hard to be effective."

In those 30 meetings, he's found that his constituents are most upset over the price of gas.

"Efficiency is the answer," he said, preferring to blame global demand -- not rampant speculation -- for daily price increases. A commuter rail system to serve the valley would help solve the problem. He wants to create an alternative energy industry in the valley, concentrating on wind and solar generation. This would provide the kind of jobs people do with their hands as well as their heads.

When our representatives come home, it helps us realize that what happens more than 2,000 miles away has a real impact here. We hope it helps them realize that we're paying attention.

Dunbar is the associate editor of The Bee. Reach him at

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