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Farm bill introduced on Senate floor as administration threatens veto

Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman Tom Harkin (D-IA) introduced his committee's farm bill on the floor of the Senate Monday with a strong showing of bipartisan support from the committee's ranking Republican, Saxby Chambliss of Georgia.

He's going to need it.

At about the same time Harkin was describing the bill as one that "creates new opportunities in agriculture and rural communities," Acting Secretary of Agriculture Chuck Conner was telling reporters that he and other senior advisors will recommend that President George W. Bush veto the farm bill if it doesn't do more to reform commodity programs that pay "the wealthiest two percent of the U.S. tax filers."

The bill also faces enough amendments to drag out debate for at least the rest of this week. Among the first to come up, will be an attempt by Senators Chuck Grassley (R-IA) and Byron Dorgan (D-ND) to limit commodity program payments to $250,000 per farm couple.

"The taxpayers in the cities are going to start raising the question, what is this farm bill all about if it's only helping big farmers," Grassley said Monday. Farm programs were originally targeted to small and medium-size farms, he added. "It's quite obvious when 10% of the farmers get 72% of the benefits, that targeting is no longer the case."

Both Grassley and Dorgan support most of the farm bill.

"This is a bridge over those price valleys that says to farmers: 'We think you matter to this country,'" Dorgan said.

But like Grassley, Dorgan worries that all farm programs will lose support of urban voters and their representatives in Congress without capping payments. Dorgan said he has nothing against large farm operators.

"If they want to farm two or three counties, God bless 'em. I just don't think the federal government has a responsibility to be their banker."

Harkin, Chambliss and agriculture committee member Kent Conrad (D-ND) who is also chairman of the Senate Budget Committee, pointed out that two-thirds of their committee's farm bill goes to nutrition programs. And USDA nutrition programs will see a $5 billion increase in spending over the five-year life of the bill. The bill is also budget-neutral, with about $8 billion in new funds from other sources that will also pay for more research, rural development, conservation and biofuels development.

That extra $8 billion is far less than some $73 billion in new money that Congress had to work with in 2002 when wrote the last farm bill, Harkin said.

But Conner, in essence, called the budgeting process a sham. Some of the savings for the 2007 bill come from ending advance direct payments after 2012 and ending increased nutrition spending in 2013.

"They promise some of the most vulnerable people in our society additional help buying food which they can count on for five years, but those additional benefits would be taken away in 2013 under the bill as drafted because the funding is also taken away," Conner said. "Congress is simply not being honest about the true cost of these initiatives. It is fair to ask whether they really intend to take away the extra benefits to farmers and the less fortunate in the year 2013. I don't think anyone believes that. Funding is removed after 2012 to make the budget books appear to be in balance."

Conner said the farm bill includes nearly $22 billion in "budget gimmicks" and nearly $15 billion in new taxes. That $37 billion in new spending is "going to make passing future farm bills very, very difficult. I might even say it probably jeopardizes future farm bills."

When asked why it took so long for the administration to take a position on the Senate farm bill, Conner pointed out that final language of the bill was finished last weekend and that he had career staffers at USDA working all weekend to analyze the bill. Senate Budge Committee Chairman Kent Conrad disagreed with Conner's assertions about the cost of the farm bill.

"They arrive at that by the most creative accounting I've ever seen," Conner said in the Senate Monday.

Conner and Republicans like Grassley may share an interest in capping farm program payments. They differ on several livestock-related portions of the Senate bill that would ban packer ownership of livestock and implement mandatory country of origin labeling. Grassley is a strong proponent. Conner said he opposes those measures.

A cap on farm program payments is just one of several amendments expected to the bill this week. According to the National Association of Wheat Growers, they include:

  • An amendment by Senators Dick Lugar (R-IN.) and Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ) would tap commodity program payments to pay for increased spending on nutrition and conservation.
  • An amendment by Senator Sherrod Brown (D-OH) will attempt to undo a last minute change to the new Average Crop Revenue program that was introduced in the committee last week by Senator Pat Roberts (R-KS). The Roberts amendment decouples the ACR program from crop insurance.

Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman Tom Harkin (D-IA) introduced his committee's farm bill on the floor of the Senate Monday with a strong showing of bipartisan support from the committee's ranking Republican, Saxby Chambliss of Georgia.

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