WASHINGTON – The process of rethinking the federal farm program is under way in the U.S. House of Representatives Agriculture Committee, but, according to Chairman Larry Combest, R-Texas, there is a way to go before anything concrete takes shape.
Combest was one of the four ranking House members involved with ag policy that Ohio’s John Boehner, ranking majority member and the only Ohio congressman on the ag committee, brought to the Ohio Farm Bureau delegation visiting Washington last week.
The forum was an update on progress toward the 2002 farm bill arranged by Boehner for the visiting Ohio Farm Bureau county presidents and officials.
They heard not only from from Combest, but also from the ranking minority member of the ag committee, Rep. Charlie Stenholm, D-Texas; from committee member, Rep. Calvin Dooley, D-Calif.; and from Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga., chairman of the general farm commodities and risk management subcommittee.
Points of consensus.
Boehner told the Ohio group that hearings the committee held across the country last year confirmed two broad points of consensus about farm policy.
Farmers appreciate the planting flexibility they were given in Freedom to Farm, and they agree that more assistance is necessary.
“What they do not agree on how to do that,” Boehner said.
Other than the concept of some sort of counter-cyclical measure and increased levels of support, he said, decisions have not been made on what the new farm bill will include.
“When you looked at the CNN election maps and saw the red areas on the coasts and the big blue area in the middle,” Boehner said, “that blue across the middle is ag country.”
“It came together in support of George W. Bush. Now we have to find the path that brings consensus to the ag community.”
Every ag segment.
Combest told the Ohio delegation that the bill, when it emerges from the committee, will outline an unprecedented farm program that will hit every segment of agriculture at the same time.
And, he said, it will be the second installment of the 1996 farm bill that will complete the process that was promised when that bill was passed.
Right now, Combest said, the committee is still listening to what the ag community has to say.
“We are giving the farm groups around the country the chance to write the farm bill,” he said.
The committee is holding a series of hearings, one for each ag group that wants to provide its input into the bill. But there are stipulations.
Each group has to provide written testimony prior to the hearing, and the testimony has to contain specific proposals with cost levels attached to each proposal.
If a group can’t be specific, Combest said, the committee will not hear them.
He said they had already canceled a hearing with the Coalition for a Competitive Food and Agriculture System because the group couldn’t agree on language the committee felt was specific enough.
“We have not heard from the fruit and vegetable people yet,” Combest said, “but they will be here. This farm bill will include all segments of agriculture.”
When the process is completed, Combest said the committee should have a blueprint for a new farm policy, a chart that shows where everyone is and where the committee might be able to go to build a consensus.
“Right now we have huge differences of opinion, even in the same groups,” he said. “We think this process should be well worth the time it is taking. It is something that has never been done before.”
Minority leader Stenholm told the group that the farm bill will most likely be the “greenest” farm bill that the country has ever had, and will include environmental concerns.
And he added that there would be something specific for each crop and that the coverage would be all-inclusive.
Rep. Chambliss told the Ohio delegation that he sees the new farm bill as a chance to finish the process that began in 1996.
“We know a lot of what we did then is working right,” he said, “but we still need to make changes that will make life in ag country a little better.”
“In 1996 we told the farmers to do what you do best, and we would create the market,” he said. “Congress still needs to do some things that were promised then.
“We own you tax relief, and we owe you trade policy.”