Senate ag bill passes without battle over limits

The Senate passed a $100.2 billion spending bill for the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Food and Drug Administration with considerably less heartburn than some observers anticipated.

The potential for gastric distress was reduced when Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, apparently decided not to introduce an amendment requiring stricter payment limits on farm program payments.

Grassley's no-show came after a group of 16 farm and farm-related organizations called on Senate leaders to reject any attempts to “substantially alter” the 2002 farm bill as the Senate began deliberations on the agricultural appropriations bill. The House passed its version of the bill in July.

The groups, which include the American Farm Bureau Federation and the National Cotton Council, sent letters to Sens. Thad Cochran, chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, and Robert Bennett, chairman of the committee's Agricultural Appropriations subcommittee, expressing their concerns about the bill.

The Senate began debate on the $100.2 billion 2006 appropriations bill on Sept. 19 and passed it Sept. 21.

“We know you will continue to be under significant pressure to fund the many important provisions that should be included in the fiscal 2006 agriculture appropriations bill,” the letter said. “We also understand the damage done by Hurricane Katrina and persistent drought places further demands on limited resources.

“However, we are concerned that any significant modification of the balance of funding for production agriculture, conservation, risk management, nutrition, and export promotion programs in FSRIA '02 will undermine the effectiveness of the law, which has served U.S. agriculture and related industries well. So well in fact, that none of our organizations have supported or called for major modification since its enactment in 2002.” (FSRIA stands for Farm Security and Rural Investment Act.)

The groups noted that earlier this year they urged the respective budget committees not to include specific reconciliation instructions in the final budget resolution, which would require specific changes in the latest farm law.

“We also urged the committees to adequately fund discretionary spending so that you and your colleagues can fund important research, conservation, risk management and marketing programs,” the letter said.

The groups said they had worked diligently with Congress and the Bush administration to urge development of new, more effective farm policy, which complied with budget and international trade obligations, such as the WTO rules.

“Congress responded by passing a farm bill that addresses the stability of our production base, protects our important natural resources, and enhances nutrition and food assistance programs for our citizens,” the letter said.

“In summary, the 2002 farm law, which was thoroughly debated for over two years, addresses many of the major problems faced by America's farmers and ranchers, rural businesses, rural communities and our neediest citizens. We strongly oppose any substantial changes to the priorities and programs embodied in the 2002 farm bill and ask you and your colleagues to do likewise.”

The letter writers said American farmers and ranchers “need a predictable, stable farm policy to continue to make responsible planting and marketing decisions. We look forward to working with you and your colleagues in support of a fiscal 2006 agriculture appropriations measure which will complement and enhance the effectiveness of our existing farm law.”

The letter appeared to mirror what farmers and farm organizations have been telling Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns and other USDA officials at Farm Bill Forums around the country since July.

Farmers attending each of the 22 listening sessions held to date have said they like the provisions of the current farm bill, although some in the Midwestern states have said they preferred stronger conservation provisions and tighter payment limits.

Other groups signing the letter included: Independent Community Bankers Association, American Soybean Association, National Association of Wheat Growers, Farm Credit Council, National Sorghum Producers, National Corn Growers Association, USA Rice Federation, U.S. Rice Producers, Southern Peanut Farmers Federation, American Sugar Alliance, Florida Peanut Producers Association and Western Peanut Growers.

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