Bush’s plate may be too full for ag issues

WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. – In President George W. Bush, farmers may find someone who feels their pain. How much the new chief executive is willing, or able, to alleviate the suffering, however, is uncertain, says a Purdue agricultural economist.

Bush has so many competing priorities he’s unlikely to advocate major changes in ag policy, according to farm policy specialist Otto Doering.

One possible exception is environmental regulation.

“The change in the White House gives less comfort to the prairie populists who would like to return to many features of the old agricultural programs, like supply control, as soon as possible,” Doering said.

“Bush has other priorities: taxes, education, a whole variety of things. That means in the coming year Bush and the Congress are less likely to have time for agricultural issues.”

Unlike President Bill Clinton, who expanded the power and scope of the Environmental Protection Agency, Bush appears ready to reduce EPA’s regulatory authority, Doering said.

“I think you’ll see a different relationship between agriculture and the EPA,” he said. “The EPA will take a narrower view of its mission, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture will reclaim some turf from the EPA.”

Doering believes the USDA will once again play a key role in pesticide issues and chemical discharges tied to Total Maximum Daily Load rules.

“TMDLs are an 800-pound gorilla,” Doering said.

Bush’s pick for secretary of agriculture, Ann Veneman, told the Senate Agriculture Committee that environmental regulations “should be based on sound scientific principles” and “help, not hinder, the ability of farmers to be good stewards,” the Associated Press reported.

Veneman is a former deputy secretary of USDA. She also served as California’s secretary of agriculture.

Doering expects Veneman to be a tough, but fair, administrator. “She’s very able and a firm individual,” he said. “She’s going to be proactive about the department’s mission. She’s also very interested in trade.”

Within the new Congress, agricultural interests have as much or more power than they did when the 1996 Farm Bill was written, Doering said. But its political makeup – almost evenly divided between Democrats and Republicans – points to a legislative standoff.

“Divisions within party ranks – especially the Republicans in the Senate – and divisions between the parties, will make consensus-building difficult,” he said.

“For example, Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, has already asked the department of agriculture to score his ‘green payments’ bill, to bring it forward, in spite of no endorsement from Sen. Richard Lugar, R-Ind., and the probability of limited interest in the bill right now.”

Harkin’s proposal would place environmental compliance conditions on future farm support payments.

Hopes that a new farm bill might be crafted this year are probably wishful thinking, Doering said. Congress is more likely to extend current farm programs another year and take up the farm bill before it expires in 2002.

“I expect no swift improvement in agricultural prices,” Doering said. “While actions to lower interest rates may weaken the dollar, export demand may not respond very much since commodities are already well priced for many foreign consumers in spite of the strong dollar. “However, the fact is that many traditional commodity producers are not doing badly with the existing support from Loan Deficiency Payments and market transition payments. Congressional disaster payments have helped others. The vastly increased subsidies for crop insurance will make this a positive investment for most farmers, akin to an additional income transfer.”

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