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Why it's so hard to pass a farm bill

Sen. Tom Harkin, (D-Iowa), who chairs the Senate Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry Committee, tells with a humorous twist how he started negotiations on the 2008 farm bill.

"Rather than sit around and have people lock into a position, I went around and met with every single member of the ag committee, Republicans and Democrats, and asked what is their priority. I compiled them all together, and it was 4 quadrillion dollars over baseline," he deadpans. "So, then I made another round, and it became clear we would need additional money."

Money is a major factor that's made passing this farm bill the most difficult in the memory of several legislative veterans who visited with members of the North American Agricultural Journalists during its April annual meeting in Washington, D.C.

The latest Senate proposal hovers around $10 billion over baseline projections; the House proposal hovers around a $5.5 to $6 billion increase over baseline over the next 10 years.

The increase proposals have resulted due to this farm bill starting with less money due to decreased spending on the 2002 farm bill.

"The last farm bill saved $17 billion from what was anticipated," says Sen. Kent Conrad (D-ND), who chairs the Senate Budget Committee. "That meant our baseline that we had available to write this farm bill was reduced. We turned to the Senate Finance and House Ways and Means Committees (for funding), and that added a whole other set of players."

Add to that the White House, which played a larger role sooner than it did in previous farm bills.

"The complexity increased many fold," says Conrad.

Adding to this complexity are lobbyists who have prompted legislators to lock into positions, says Rep. Collin Peterson (D-MN), chairman of the House Agriculture Committee.

"This has got to stop," says Peterson. "There are people who just want to spend money."

The farm bill covers a lot more ground than payments to farmers, with each component having its champion. Some examples include:

* Nutrition programs.

About two-thirds of the proposed farm bill baseline goes toward nutrition programs, according to Congressional Budget Office (CBO) data. This portion is favored by urban congressmen like Rep. Charles Rangel (D-NY), who chairs the House Ways and Means Committee.

Tough economic times have accelerated more demands on programs like food stamps, which falls under the farm bill. Jim Weill, president of the Food Research and Action Center, Washington, D.C., notes around USDA data in 2006 showed 35.5 million people lived in food insecure households. Food insecure individuals can suffer at times from hunger. Recent rising food prices particularly hit low-income individuals hard.

"At the poverty line, individuals can spend one-third of their incomes on food," says Weill.

* Conservation.

Conservation programs account for 9% of the farm bill budget, according to the CBO. Programs like the Conservation Security Program (CSP) are a passion for Harkin.

"Whatever validity the (farm) program had in the '40s, '50s, '60s, '70s and '80s, where you were paying for what a farmer would grow and how much they would grow, is not valid today," says Harkin. Instead, he favors targeting federal money in programs like the CSP to promote conservation practices like buffer strips and no-till.

* Permanent disaster legislation.

In recent years, the Upper Midwest has been ravaged by drought in some areas and flooding in others.

Rather than attempting to pass special legislation each time a disaster occurs, Conrad proposes setting aside permanent disaster funds in the farm bill that could be tapped when disaster occurs. The Senate version contains a bit over $4 billion for this purpose.

"This is a disaster title that fits hand in glove with crop insurance," says Conrad. "It's designed to look at whole farm losses, and not just individual crops. If a farmer has tremendous losses on one part of his farm, but overall does quite well, do they need a disaster payment? That's what occurs under ad-hoc disaster. Under this bill, we look at losses on a whole farm basis.

"Another thing to keep in mind about ad hoc disaster bills is they become a Christmas tree," Conrad says. "With an ad hoc disaster title, things get added. We have tried to design a plan that is taxpayer friendly."

* Biofuels.

"This is just not in the interest of agriculture, but also for national security," says Conrad. "We are importing 60% of the fuel we use."

There's a push to base future ethanol production on cellulosic sources, such as switchgrass. Although Harkin foresees corn being a good base for ethanol production, cellulosic materials will help provide future production increases for ethanol. "We will get more ethanol per acre out of certain cellulosic materials than corn," he says.

* Trade agreements.

A factor hanging over the head of this farm bill is the World Trade Organization's Doha Round. There's concern that some Farm Bill provisions--such as direct payments--may violate the WTO.

"I must say that we are on an edge here in that the WTO will find direct payments to be WTO non-compliant," says Harkin.

* Tax provisions.

One stumbling point has been a Senate $2.5 billion tax package covering everything from biofuels to racehorse tax treatment.

Harkin says if there is to be a tax package, compromise must occur between House and Senate negotiators. "I'd hate to see the farm bill come down because of a sticking point on the tax package," he says.

Sen. Tom Harkin, (D-Iowa), who chairs the Senate Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry Committee, tells with a humorous twist how he started negotiations on the 2008 farm bill.

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