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Harkin on USDA farm bill proposals: Great ideas, little money

Agriculture.com Staff 02/01/2007 @ 10:07am

Tom Harkin, the Democrat who chairs the Senate Agriculture Committee, gave Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns' farm bill proposal fairly high praise Tuesday.

"My initial take on it is there some good ideas in there. This is not dead on arrival, I can assure you," Harkin told reporters.

And, when asked later if he could recall a similar farm bill proposal in his 32 years of sitting on a congressional agriculture committee, Harkin said he couldn't.

"This is about as detailed a proposal from an administration that I can remember," Harkin said. The USDA Farm Bill proposal includes more than 60 proposals with innovative ideas such as a revenue-based countercyclical program payment, slightly larger direct payments for beginning farmers, and a strict payment limited based on a farmer's adjusted gross income from all sources.

It increases funding for schools to buy fresh fruits and vegetables. Providing healthy snacks in schools with USDA help is an idea Harkin has championed.

Harkin was most pleased that the Bush administration wants to increase spending on conservation and development of energy from biomass.

Johanns even proposes opening up the Conservation Security Program on all agricultural lands, not just a small group of watersheds every year. Harkin, the author of the CSP, likes that, too.

But the spending levels are very modest. Johanns proposes increasing CSP funds by about $50 million per year, much smaller than Harkin's original vision of an entitlement program that would cost several billion. And Harkin doesn’t think the USDA’s proposed investment in biofuels is big enough.

"There will not be sufficient funds in this to fulfill the President's goal of 35 billion gallons by 2017, so we’re going to have to massage that," Harkin says.

The greatest weakness to the proposal may be its level of spending, Harkin says.

"It's just the budget and priorities, where does the President put his priorities?" he asks.

Spending under the USDA proposal would fall, but Johanns proposes spending nearly $5 billion more than if the current farm bill was just extended over the next 10 years. However, Harkin has said he'd like to see about $20 billion added into an agricultural budget that is likely to decline with current high commodity prices. If prices are high when a farm bill is drafted, the ag committee gets a projected 10-year spending baseline to work with that is smaller. That's because the Congressional Budget Office assumes less money will be needed for commodity program payments.

Tom Harkin, the Democrat who chairs the Senate Agriculture Committee, gave Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns' farm bill proposal fairly high praise Tuesday.

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