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Budget draws bipartisan criticism

President Bush's budget proposals for agriculture drew a lot of criticism on Capitol Hill Monday, and not all of it was from Democrats.

Senate Agriculture Committee Chair, Saxby Chambliss (R-GA) said it would be unfair to cut spending on farm programs and predicted that Congress won't pass Bush's ag budget.

"We will continue to work for deficit reduction that will not burden farmers, particularly after the high fuel costs and extreme weather of the 2005 crop year, and without harming the mutually-beneficial relationship between farmers and food stamp families," Chambliss said in a statement.

Chambliss pointed out that crop program spending is $13 billion less than projected for the 2002 Farm bill.

"Congress did not pass last year's 2006 budget proposals. The 2007 budget proposals are very similar, and once again unfairly target agriculture. I expect Congress to reject them again," Chambliss said.

Chuck Grassley, the Iowa Republican who heads the Senate Finance Committee shares Bush's goal of capping farm program payments at $250,000, but said Tuesday that even if a spending cut reconciliation bill is introduced this year, opponents of the cut will say it's not the right time to make such a change to the 2002 Farm Bill.

Last fall, when Grassley tried to get a firm payment cap added to the spending cut legislation, "they were able to use that argument against me, that it's a major change to the farm bill."

Grassley said he does expect payment caps to be debated next year during when Congress will start writing new farm legislation. "It's just a better opportunity,"he said.

In a statement made after the budget was released on Monday, Grassley also applauded the Bush Administration for asking for more money to run USDA's Office of Civil Rights. Grassley said the money is needed to ensure that minority farmers and minority staffers at USDA are treated fairly.

Democrats found a lot to criticize in the ag budget.

Senator Tom Harkin (D-IA) considers Bush's support for renewable fuels and energy conservation inadequate.

"The President called for a modest increase in R&D for biomass through the Energy Department ($59 million), but falls well short of the $200 million in funding that Senator Harkin called for through the energy bill," Harkin's staff pointed out in a statement released Monday.

"The President called for developing ethanol from sources such as corn stalks, wood chips, switchgrass and other sources in his State of the Union address, but fails to put necessary resources to address America's dependence on foreign oil."

At USDA, the President would cut farm bill research and development for renewable energy, which "will mean less wind turbines, less investment in renewable fuels and less in energy efficiency grants to help save farmers much needed money as they face soaring energy bills," Harkin said. He also criticized cuts to food aid, a 25% cut to the conservation program, EQIP (Environmental Quality Improvement Program) and weatherization grants for low-income families.

"It is no exaggeration to say that many farm families and rural Americans are struggling for economic survival," said Harkin. "The President's answer to hardship in America's heartlands is cutting investment in rural America to make room for further tax breaks for the wealthy."

Along with Harkin, Senator Tim Johnson (D-SD) was critical of Bush's proposed 5% cut in farm program payments, although both support Bush's effort to cap payments at $250,000.

"Reductions to agriculture spending are unfair to rural America," Johnson said. "The tax cuts for millionaires have kept their place in this budget and everyone else got the squeeze. If South Dakotans balanced their home budget like this, they'd lose the farm."

In the House of Representatives, Collin Peterson, the ranking Democrat on the Ag Committee, said the budget won't solve the federal deficit.

"For agriculture, at best this budget is a rehash of the President's strategy of sacrificing farm support for a sell-at-any-cost international trade policy," Peterson said. "At worst, this budget shows no commitment on the part of the President to the needs of our nation's farmers."

America's largest farm organization, the American Farm Bureau Federation, agreed with those members of Congress who see Bush's budget unfairly targeting farmers.

Commodity programs, conservation programs and crop insurance subsidies amount to about 1% of the federal budget, says Farm Bureau lobbyist Mary Kay Thatcher. Yet farm program cuts represent about 7% of the $39 billion recently approved by Congress in a reconciliation bill that cuts spending over several years. And in the President's budget released Monday, cuts to agricultural spending represent about 8% of all of the proposed cuts in federal spending.

Making cuts now is also a bad negotiating tactic in World Trade Organization talks, she added, because other countries would be required to make smaller cuts in their own programs to match ours.

Will Congress back the Administration's budget?

"I think in an election year, and with as much stuff as is going on, it's not very likely," Thatcher said.

American Farmland Truast, a group that favors broad changes to farm programs, said that the debate over big changes should not be part of the budget.

"The Administration's proposal to change to crop insurance and payment limits must be addressed in the larger farm policy discussion not simply as a budget cutting measure. Instead of debating which program gets cut and by how much, we need to have an open, healthy dialogue with farmers and ranchers over our farm policy priorities and how to develop new policies for the future," said the group's president, Ralph Grossi.

AFT also criticized an Administration budget proposal that would cut spending for the Farm and Ranch Lands Protection Program, which helps pay for the purchase of development rights from farmers and ranchers.

Congress should restore funding for FRPP to help stem the loss of our best farmland to development. These cuts are shortsighted. Once it's gone, it is gone forever," Grossi said.

President Bush's budget proposals for agriculture drew a lot of criticism on Capitol Hill Monday, and not all of it was from Democrats.

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