How much longer can farm bill survive?

Sometime in the next few days, the U.S. House of Representatives is expected to take up the 2003 agricultural appropriations bill. And, once again, Reps. Marcy Kaptur, D-Ohio, and Nick Smith, R-Mich., are expected to offer their version of the Grassley-Dorgan payment limit amendment.

Hopefully, Reps. Henry Bonilla, R-Texas, Larry Combest, R-Texas, Charlie Stenholm, D-Texas, and others will work their magic and head off the G-D amendment, as one Washington lobbyist calls it, either through parliamentary maneuvers or garnering enough votes to defeat it.

Later, Sens. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, and Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., will re-introduce their amendment when the ag appropriations bill comes to the Senate. If that fails, they will bring it up when the 2004 ag appropriations bill is debated next year. And, again, in 2005.

Farm organization leaders have been urging their members to make more calls to their House members and senators, asking them to vote against the amendments. They know that the fatigue factor is setting in.

“Many of you have been making these calls, and you wonder if they are really necessary when the amendment doesn't get introduced,” said John Maguire, a National Cotton Council vice president. “You can make six calls on six amendments, but, if you don't make the call on the seventh, that's the one that will get passed.”

Maguire was referring to earlier this summer when Rep. Kaptur introduced a payment limits amendment in the House Ag Appropriations Subcommittee that Rep. Bonilla chairs. She later withdrew the amendment, charging that subcommittee leaders had pressured her to do so.

Maguire told the NCC's board of directors at its meeting in Memphis that lobbyists for the 16 farm organizations working against any changes to the farm bill would prefer no amendments come to the floor. That's because the lobbyists fear that sooner or later payment limit advocates will muster enough votes to pass an amendment and the organizations will be faced with trying to defeat an appropriations bill or other needed legislation.

Citing the almost daily media bashing of the new farm bill, more analysts are asking whether the farm bill can survive in its present form, particularly when the public doesn't understand the economics of agriculture.

“The public's mood is simply not very positive as serious questions are being asked as to why federal tax dollars are being handed out to an industry that already shows tremendous profitability and rock-solid equity as reported by USDA data,” said one, Kurt Ehnle, writing in a recent Ferguson AgReport. Ehnle, president of the Ferguson Group Ltd., Peoria, Ill., suggested that farmers should be asking how the loss or severe reduction of government payments would affect their operations.

Assuming that the new counter-cyclical payments and higher loan rates help farmers get back on their feet over the next two years, farmers should restructure their operations so they are not dependent on them for survival.

Ehnle says he foresees 2004 as the “day of reckoning” for farmers and their new farm bill. After that, it's anyone's guess how much longer the new farm programs will be available, he notes.

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