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Chesapeake Bay and that Fellow Named Faust

The prospect of securing $380 million for Chesapeake Bay over the next 10 years appears within reach as negotiators in Congress put the finishing touches on the nation’s new Farm Bill, a $280 billion spending extravaganza with something for everyone.

But as the action unfolds, we can’t help recalling the legend of Johann Faust, the shady magician who made the deal with the devil.

Securing a dedicated pot of federal money for Bay restoration is appealing indeed given the Bay’s ailing state and a state budget with afflictions of its own.

The cash infusion of money was orchestrated by members of Congress from Maryland, Virginia and Pennsylvania last week in 11th-hour deliberations before final votes. The rationale was that with the Bay a continuing victim of farm pollution — especially with more corn now for ethanol —the time has come for Congress to take responsibility by according the Bay special priority. Can’t argue with that.

For those who gave in to the demands from our region, there was this thinking, too: The more they pack into the Farm Bill, the better chance we have to secure votes. (That’s why they put the Food Stamp program in the Farm Bill: to get urban support for rural giveaways.)

And Farm Bill sponsors will need all the help they can get, considering that they’re pushing a bloated spending plan that perpetuates a farm subsidy system born back in Depression days.

It doesn’t seem sensible in this era of soaring commodity prices (corn’s $6 a bushel, up 30 percent this year.) But Congress thus far has refused to limit payments to wealthy farmers and absentee landowners — or reform a system where 10 percent of the farmers get two-thirds of the subsidies.

(Reformers — including environmentalists, budget hawks and President George W. Bush — want to cut payments to farmers making more than $200,000 a year. Now you can make over a million and still reap taxpayer subsidies. Find out who gets Maryland’s biggest subsidy checks at

In the realm of the hard to understand, it also didn’t seem possible when Farm Bill negotiators announced last week that they planned to cut the McGovern-Dole International Food for Education and Child Nutrition Program from $840 million to $60 million.

Food purchased under this program offers an alternative to hungry kids in foreign lands, kids who might otherwise be recruited by extremist groups that give meals in return for attending schools that breed terrorism.

On the positive side of the Farm Bill, the negotiators agreed to cut back on some of the crop subsidies and reduce slightly the tax break for ethanol. And they seem open for imposing limits of some sort on payments to farmers.

Back here along Chesapeake Bay, we must ask ourselves, when the devil is knocking with a bargain, do you dare read the fine print?

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