Tension mounting over farm bill debate

Will there be a 2001 farm bill? A month ago, the prospects for a new farm bill in time for the 2002 crop year looked pretty good. Now, many observers aren't so sure.

When the House Agriculture Committee reported its Farm Security Act of 2001, H.R. 2646, on July 27, many thought it marked a good first step toward legislation that would replace Freedom to Farm.

While it did not provide as much funding as farm organizations sought, the bill addressed several issues important to producers, including improving the safety net through a counter-cyclical payment based on the old target price.

By the end of August, however, some House Ag Committee members were beginning to lose their optimism as first the bad news about the budget surplus and then opposition from farm and environmental groups began to muddy the waters.

Rep. Charlie Stenholm, ranking minority member and one of the authors of the Farm Security Act, told reporters the farm bill would not happen this fall “because there's no more money. There'll be no more prescription drug bill nor will there be an increase in defense spending under the president's own budget.”

Rep. Larry Combest, the House Ag Committee chairman, insists that funding for the farm bill is “fully compliant” with the budget resolution the House passed last spring. At presstime, the full House was scheduled to take up the Ag Committee bill on Sept. 13 or 14.

If the budget issue is resolved — that is, whether Congress will be dipping into Social Security reserves to fund the farm bill and other spending — the bill faces other hurdles in the House and Senate.

For openers, two congressmen say they will introduce amendments on the House floor that would shift $4 billion in spending for commodity programs to conservation programs. Environmentalists, who have inundated newspapers with lists of the “Top 100” recipients of farm payments in each state to make their point about payments to “big farmers,” support the move.

Senate Ag Committee leaders, who were already expected to write a more conservation-oriented bill, threw another wrinkle into the puzzle when they asked Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman whether the House Ag Committee bill would violate World Trade Organization commitments.

Given that Combest and the secretary had an earlier run-in over USDA's reporting of market loss assistance (AMTA) payments as non-exempt for WTO purposes, the query probably did little to help ease tensions over a new farm bill.

Probably the touchiest area of the farm bill debate, however, is the increasingly strained relationship between commodity groups. As Congress returned from the August recess, the National Association of Corn Growers repeated its complaint that the House bill is biased against corn and soybean farmers.

“Our prospects for equitable treatment are brighter in the Senate because the Corn Belt states are much better represented in the Senate Ag Committee than in the House,” said the NACG's Bruce Knight. “To maximize our leverage, leaders representing corn and soybeans have been meeting to discuss how we can marshal our support.”

With budget hawks and environmentalists increasingly taking aim at new farm legislation, the last thing farmers need is open warfare between their commodity groups on Capitol Hill.

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