White House opposes Senate OKs farm bill

The Senate spent five weeks debating the number of amendments that could be offered for the 2007 farm bill, but, in the end, the legislation it passed by a 79-14 vote looked remarkably similar to that introduced in the chamber Nov. 5.

The five-year, $286-billion Food and Energy Security Act the Senate passed Dec. 14 embodies many of the programs farm organizations and environmental and nutrition groups wanted in a new farm law. But the bill quickly drew fire from the Bush administration and other environmentalists for what it doesn't do.

“This is a great, great vote,” said Agriculture Committee Chairman Tom Harkin shortly after the Senate gave his committee's bill the most votes received by a farm bill in the Senate since 1973. “It affirms the hard work put in by this committee and staff in the months of hearings and negotiations that went into the bill.”

The Senate farm bill, which now goes to a conference committee to be reconciled with the one passed by the House in July, would give farmers the option of enrolling in a new average crop revenue program that bases counter-cyclical payments on crop revenues rather than prices.

It also:

  • “Rebalances loan rates and target prices for program crops, raising them for wheat and soybeans and reducing the target price for cotton;
  • Provides $1.6 billion for new programs for specialty crop producers, including “state specialty crop competitiveness” projects focused on regional and local priorities and trade assistance and market promotion tools to open new international markets;
  • Increases the funding for Harkin's newly renamed Conservation Stewardship Program to grow the program from the current 15 million to 80 million acres in five years and for expanded enrollment in the Wetland Reserve, Environmental Quality Incentives and Grassland Reserve Programs.
  • Provides investments in renewable energy by creating financial incentives to help farmers transition into biomass crops and a loan guarantee program to help ethanol plants switch from corn to cellulosic-based ethanol.
  • Updates “archaic” nutrition program rules, increases Food Stamp benefit levels and stops the erosion of benefits due to inflation, while expanding the Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program created by Harkin to reach nearly 4.5 million children in elementary schools nationwide.
  • Reauthorizes the Commodity Exchange Act until 2013.

North Dakota Sen. Kent Conrad, senior Democrat on the Agriculture Committee and one of the chief architects of the Senate bill along with Georgia Sen. Saxby Chambliss, the ranking minority member, said the bill builds on the success of the 2002 farm law.

“It has been a tough fight for this farm bill, but the hard work has paid off,” said Conrad.

“We've now got a good bill for North Dakota and the nation.

“This bill makes major investments in America's food and energy security — and does so without adding one cent to our nation's deficit.”

Conrad said the bill addresses farm program eligibility issues by eliminating the three-entity rule and by reducing the adjusted gross income farmers can report and remain eligible commodity program payments.

The Senate farm bill emerged from the Agriculture Committee with no dissenting votes but ran into a political buzz saw when Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid attempted to “fill the Christmas tree” with amendments that were only germane to the farm bill.

That touched off a partisan debate that finally ended when Conrad and Chambliss brokered an agreement that allowed only 20 amendments to be offered on ach side. (At least 280 amendments were pending at one point.)

Once the compromise took effect, the Senate defeated an amendment offered by Sens. Richard Lugar of Indiana and Frank Lautenberg of New Jersey that would have replaced the current commodity title with an expanded crop insurance program and the perennial payment limit amendment of Sens. Byron Dorgan of North Dakota and Charles Grassley of Iowa.

Both amendments, along with one offered by Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota that would have reduced the adjusted gross income limit for farm payments, failed to receive the 60-vote minimum demanded by Sen. Blanche Lincoln, D-Ark.

Conrad said he expects the bill that emerges from the House-Senate conference committee to be signed by the president despite administration threats to veto the bill over its costs.

But acting Agriculture Secretary Chuck Conner said the conference committee would have to make a number of changes in the legislation before the president could sign the measure.

“This legislation is fundamentally flawed,” Conner said in a statement issued minutes after the Senate vote. “Unless the House and Senate can come together and craft a measure that contains real reform, we are no closer to a good farm bill than we were before today.”

Conner said the Senate bill “fails to strengthen the safety net and increases taxes to generate $15 billion in revenue used to grow the size and scope of government.

“The bill further increases price supports and continues to send farm subsidies to people who are among the wealthiest 2 percent of Americans.”

The measure, he said, has $22 billion in “unfunded commitments and budget gimmicks, and includes $15 billion in new taxes — the first time a farm bill has relied on tax increases since 1933.”

The bill also drew sharp criticism from environmental organizations such as the Environmental Working Group that has been posting farmers' names and the amounts of payments they've received to try to change the payment limit rules in the new farm bill.

Speaking at a telephone press conference held prior to the Senate vote, spokesmen for the groups said they hoped Chairman Harkin and other would be able to include legislation similar to the Dorgan-Grassley amendment in the farm bill conference report.

Leaders of farm organizations such as the National Cotton Council and the USA Rice Federation, on the other hand, said the bill provides “responsible” payment limit reform and needed improvement to the farm safety net.

The groups said they were grateful for the efforts of Chambliss and Lincoln and others for leading efforts to reject the Dorgan-Grassley, Klobuchar and Lugar-Lautenberg amendments.

“The industry is deeply appreciative to Sens. Chambliss and Lincoln and their colleagues for developing legislation that will continue to provide all segments of the cotton industry with an effective, budget responsible safety net,” said NCC Chairman John Pucheu, a Tranquillity, Calif. producer.

“Growers and their bankers are grateful that Sens. Chambliss' and Lincoln's efforts preserved responsible reform and improvements and resulted in the rejection of unworkable proposals that were clearly detrimental to Sunbelt growers,” said American Cotton Producers Chairman Jay Hardwick of Newellton, La.

“We are also pleased that the Senate has produced a balanced package that provided significant financial resources to conservation, nutrition, research, international market development and energy programs.”

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