‘Bloated’ farm bill on shaky ground

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Since 1981, when I picked up my first pen, paper and paycheck as a journalist, six farm bills have come and gone. With them came and went some giant elements in U.S. farm policy; elements like the Farmer Owned Reserve, planting set-asides, Kansas Sen. Bob Dole and longtime House Ag Committee boss Kike de la Garza.

The writing of those six laws, however, was as easy as making oatmeal compared to the hemlock being brewed now with the seventh, and not-yet complete, 2007 farm bill.

Framework

Sure, Senate and House farm bill negotiators finally reached a spending “framework” April 25 that all say (hope is a more accurate) will lead to a finished bill by Mother’s Day.

If so, it will arrive more out of exhaustion than exuberance because this farm bill fight has been the longest, nastiest slugfest over farm policy most well-callused Capitol Hill hands have seen.

What started out as a reform effort has, in 16 long months, delivered mostly an agreement to stop disagreeing; a broad revision of the 2002 law written more in bad blood than stately ink.

And it’s far from over.

Since formalizing the framework April 25, Sen. Tom Harkin of Iowa, chairman of the bill’s conference committee, twice asked his Senate-House aggies to gather to bake, then slice, the final pie.

Both times the meetings were canceled because, while everyone now agrees on the number of apples to put into it — about $280 billion over five years — no one wants to peel ’em.

Hints

Privately, say both Repub and Dem Hill operators, Harkin and his staff are authors of much of this mush. Hints of slow staff work on the bill’s many titles and poor communications with other members began to surface last fall when the legislation’s Sept. 30 deadline quietly sank out of sight.

Shortly thereafter, two of Harkin’s Senate ag colleagues, Montana’s Max Baucus and North Dakota’s Kent Conrad, took lead roles in shaping the bill.

Together, as keepers of the Senate’s two money trees (Baucus is chair of the tax-collecting Finance Committee; Conrad chair of the tax-spending Budget Committee), did a lot of the lifting to get the farm bill to where it is today.

But where it is now still doesn’t impress the White House.

Bloated

In an April 29 press conference, President Bush called the House-Senate framework “a massive, bloated farm bill that would do little to solve the problem” of rising food prices.

He also repeated his call for hard caps on “subsidy payments to multimillionaire farmers,” a call unheeded by both Dems and Repubs of the conference committee.

The most pregnant ag question in Washington now is not so much when will Congress complete the farm bill as much as if it does, than will the president veto it? And if he does — as he and his staff have repeatedly said they’d do since January — what’s next?

Veto

Absent a veto override, the answer to that question is the 1949 Act. Without a 2007 (now 2008 update) the 1949 law — with its outdated producer votes, planting allotments and $8 to $10 per gallon, supermarket milk prices — automatically becomes the law of the land.

In short, the 1949 Act would be a costlier, functional disaster for farmers and consumers alike than simply extending the 2002 law. Ah, but the politics of a veto are attractive to the White House.

The term-limited president has nothing to lose in canning a “bloated” farm bill and pinning the blame on the Dem-controlled Congress.

Moreover, a veto could give Republican candidates a winning issue in November: Look, the do-nothing Dems can’t even write a farm bill.

And, thus far, they can’t.

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Alan Guebert was raised on an 800-acre, 100-cow southern Illinois dairy farm. After graduation from the University of Illinois in 1980, he served as a writer and editor at Professional Farmers of America, Successful Farming magazine and Farm Journal magazine. His syndicated agricultural column, The Farm and Food File, began in June, 1993, and now appears weekly in more than 70 publications throughout the U.S. and Canada. He and spouse Catherine, a social worker, have two adult children. farmandfoodfile.com

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