When Mark Udall (D-Colo.) proposed shaving two-thirds of a cent from just one of the subsidies that go to cotton farmers, Bob Etheridge (D-N.C.) said, “it is absolutely unfair, once we have reached this very delicate balance within the bill, to reach in and single out one commodity.”

That amendment — to cut less than a penny from cotton subsidies and use the savings to protect more than 200,000 acres from sprawl and development — failed by a vote of 175-251. So what was that very delicate balance that the House of Representatives preserved?

Last week, they approved a bill that changed not one cent in the payment rates for cotton, rice, corn, or any other commodity through our most expensive subsidy program: “direct payments.” It looks like "balance" is just another word for "the status quo."

The debate on Farm Bill reform is over for the summer in the House, but the Senate will take it up in September. There is still time to correct some of the inequity of direct payments.

Direct payments are a relic from the 1996 “Freedom to Farm” farm bill; payments that have been labeled as unnecessary by farm groups and farm state leaders, such as former Senator Bob Dole. The payments were meant to be a transitional program for a few years, while other subsidies were being eliminated and farmers were getting used to less market interference by the government. Instead, direct payments have been transformed into the largest entitlement left in the Farm Bill, estimated to cost taxpayers $26 billion over the next five years.

Farm subsidies are supposed to provide a safety net — “catch me I’m falling” support for farmers when drought, dips in global crop prices, or other risks throw farmers a curve ball. Direct payments don’t do that. Instead, the program pays out year after year, regardless of whether farmers are deep in the red or earning record profits.

Farm leaders are well aware of the inequity of this system. Tom Buis, president of the National Farmers Union, has said, “Direct payments are a legacy of Freedom to Farm that didn’t work. They don’t give enough in times of need, and they are hard to defend when prices are high.”

Despite statements by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi saying that the House legislation was the beginning of reform, many see only missed opportunities. The New York Times has labeled it the “anti-reform” Farm Bill, the Washington Post has said Democrats are “in danger of failing a major test of their commitment to change,” and the Denver Post says the bill “threatens to do equal damage to taxpayers and the environment alike.”

Not only did the House fail to make meaningful reductions in direct payments to highly profitable farms and crops, they took away limits to the size of the subsidized loans a corporate farm can receive, and continued to allow millionaires to get subsidies.

How did this happen? It was not much of a surprise that the House Agriculture Committee failed to embrace reform. The 9 percent of America’s representatives in Congress that serve on that committee have constituents that get 42 percent of subsidies from the status quo.

However, as Steph Larsen pointed out here on Gristmill, the Senate’s agriculture heavyweight, Tom Harkin, has made much more encouraging statements about reform. Agriculture Chairman Harkin realizes that direct payments “make no sense” and he and others are looking at better balanced ways (PDF) to adjust the support that goes to farms during periods of record farm profits, and invest in a better safety net and expanded support for conservation, healthy foods, and nutrition. He has support from his home state newspaper, the Des Moines Register, to do so.

Whether you care about the environment, children’s health, feeding the hungry, global trade, or taxes, this is the time to make your voice heard in the offices of your two Senators.