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Farm bill budget picture becomes clearer with '08 budget resolution passage

When Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman Tom Harkin (D-IA) was asked to list his top three issues for the farm bill Thursday, he didn't hesitate.

"Money, lack of money and lack of money. That's the top three," he joked.

Harkin has asked for an additional $20 billion to be added back into the Agriculture Committtee's baseline, or spending projection, for its five-year farm bill. When the Senate Budget Committee passed its 2008 budget resolution today, the non-binding blueprint for spending includes an extra $15 billion.

According to a statement from Budget Committee Chairman Kent Conrad (D-ND), "The reauthorization of the Farm Bill will provide an economic safety net for agricultural producers, enhance the stewardship of our natural resources, address domestic nutrition needs, increase agricultural research, and improve our export competitiveness."

Harkin's committee will get to decide how to do that -- and it will have to figure out where the extra $15 billion will come from.

"We're going to have a problem looking at the offsets," Harkin told reporters Thursday. "We've got a ways to go yet."

Harkin and other Democrats are hoping that more revenue from shutting down offshore tax havens will help. But Republicans, including former Finance Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley, Harkin's Iowa colleague in the Senate, are skeptical.

Harkin conceded that his committee will have less to work with than the last time a farm bill was written -- about $23 billion less. Part of the reason is that Congress has cut spending for conservation and agricultural research over the last few years. And part of the reason is that less money was spent on commodity programs than projected. When spending is less, the Congressional Budget Office projects a need for less money in the future in its baseline.

"This is a lot different story than when I chaired the committee in 2001," Harkin said Thursday. "We had a surplus. We were flush. We could do a lot of things."

The House Budget Committee may give the House Agriculture Committee leeway to spend more on its own version of the farm bill, but Representative Collin Peterson (D-MN), the chairman of the Ag Committee, admitted that the Budget Committee hasn't shared many details with him. "We cannot get a clear read, exactly, where they're at," he said Thursday.

One sign of the new austerity in agriculture, is that a $3.7 billion disaster bill working its way through the House of Representatives would require anyone making a claim for losses (in 2005, 2006 or 2007) to show that he or she carried crop insurance.

"If you don't have crop insurance, you don't qualify. This would be the first time we've done this. We've talked about this in the past," Peterson said.

Peterson also said that he isn't certain at this point exactly how the money will be found to increase spending in the farm bill beyond the amount projected in the baseline.

When Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman Tom Harkin (D-IA) was asked to list his top three issues for the farm bill Thursday, he didn't hesitate.

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