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Former Ag Committee chair has doubts

Representative Collin Peterson (D-MN) isn’t one of the liberal Democrats who are pledging to vote against the debt ceiling deal when it comes up in the House of Representatives today.

But the former chairman of the House Agriculture Committee and current ranking Democrat has his doubts about how much influence production agriculture will have on the cuts.

“I’m not exactly clear at this point,” Peterson told Monday.

“Boehner has been telling us from the start that we’re going to be the ones deciding what to do,” he said, referring to Speaker of the House, John Boehner (R-OH).

Under the weekend debt ceiling deal, Congress votes on cuts in discretionary spending that will total $917 billion over 10 years. Then, in the next 14 days after the bill is enacted, the Republican and Democratic leaders of the House and Senate will each appoint 3 members to a 12-member  “Joint Select Committee On Deficit Reduction.”

That group, which won’t be elected by members of Congress, will be charged with finding another $1.5 trillion in deficit reduction over the next 10 years.  

The makeup of that committee makes Peterson uneasy.

“My guess is that there won’t be anybody on there who will know much about this,” Peterson said, referring to farm program spending.

He expects that “most people on this committee have bought into the idea that farm programs are wasteful and going to the wrong people,” Peterson said.

The best hope for members with some understanding of agriculture is likely to be in the Senate, Peterson said.

Peterson will be pleased if Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) appoints either Senator Max Baucus (D-MT) or Kent Conrad (D-ND) to the committee on deficit reduction. Baucus heads the Senate Finance Committee and was on the committee led by Vice President Joe Biden to negotiate a debt ceiling deal. Conrad is chairman of the Budget Committee and a member of the “Gang of Six,” a bipartisan group of senators that was also working to find a debt ceiling proposal that could pass in Congress. Both men are on the Senate Agriculture Committee.

Peterson thinks members of the Senate from both parties don’t want to cut more than the $11 billion in farm program spending that Reid had in his debt deal that was rejected by the House last week.

The final debt ceiling deal up for a vote today says that committees, including the Agriculture Committee, will be able to recommend how cuts will be made to the deficit reduction committee. The deadline for making suggestions is next October 14.

But, Peterson said, the Ag Committee and others may not know exactly how much they have to cut before making their recommendations. Nor is there any certainty that the bipartisan deficit cutting committee will take the ag committee’s advice.  Whatever it decides, the super committee has a deadline of November 23 to recommend the next $1.5 trillion in cuts.

If Congress doesn’t pass the recommendations of the committee, then federal programs (excluding major entitlements such as social security) would be cut 4% across the board, Peterson says.

For all farm bill programs (not just commodity programs as originally reported), that would amount to about $32 billion over 10 years.  If the super committee decides instead not to cut food stamps (the biggest chunk of farm bill spending) and to target farm programs, just taking the 4% cut might be better for farm programs, he believes.

“If they try to screw us over and we can cobble enough people together, we can bring this whole process down and take the 4% cut,” he said. “Sequestration may be the best thing for agriculture.”

Roger Johnson, president of National Farmers Union, told that his group, like others in agriculture, favors leaving the tough decisions to the agriculture committee.

“We wanted the committees of jurisdiction to have some say,” Johnson said, “but just because the committee weighs in doesn’t mean the [deficit reduction] committee buys the recommendations.”

The debt ceiling deal now makes it almost certain that writing the farm bill won’t start in earnest until next year.

“If you don’t really know what the super committee will do in making the cuts, you can’t write the farm bill,” Johnson said.

And, for now, at least, farm programs continue.

“It could have been worse,” Peterson said, laughing. “At least we lived to fight another day.”

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