Ag journalists were well-blessed last Election Day when, in the Dem’s retaking of the U.S. House of Representative, Collin Peterson assumed the chairmanship of that chamber’s Agriculture Committee.
The move, which positioned Peterson to do most of the 2007 farm bill’s heavy lifting, also delivered an ag boss that’s a near-ideal interview. He rarely dodges a question, offers opinions with supporting facts and, at least in my experience with him, doesn’t play the “off-the-record,” Washington spin game.
Not normal. That makes him a rare bird; a politician who believes that what happens in the People’s House is the peoples’ business. For proof, just ask him – as several journalists and broadcasters did Feb. 15, when Peterson met the press in an hour-long telephone interview.
Two topics dominated the session: U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Mike Johanns’ lengthy appearance before the full House Ag Committee Valentine’s Day and, later that day, Peterson’s hat-in-hand visit to the House Budget Committee.
The sessions, to hear Peterson relate their facts, were night-and-day different. Johanns talked for “nearly three hours” about his new 2007 farm bill ideas.
By comparison, the Budget Committee hearing, where Peterson was handed the cold numbers he’s going to have wrap his farm bill inside of, was over in a blink.
Hard to miss. The contrast was hard to miss. We can talk ’til the cows come home about the 2007 farm bill, but the Budget Committee is done talking. Its farm bill’s spending numbers are freezing over quickly.
Cash to support the 2007 law’s commodity price support programs “will fall substantially,” Peterson reported, “$60 billion over the next 10 years.” That’s “42.8 percent less than the 2002 farm bill baseline,” added the one-time accountant.
New farm bill conservation spending, according to what Peterson was told, will rise 32 percent and food aid funding, mostly Food Stamps, will climb 46 percent, to nearly $77 billion per year.
The cut in commodity program funding was tough news, he continued, despite the fact that the “2002 farm bill had a life savings to the government that was probably the biggest of any federal agency.”
I agree. He’s right. Even with the heavy spending permitted under the 2002 law, the tab, by most estimates, could have been $10 to $17 billion higher had commodity prices been in the tank during all its five-year run.
Prices did tank part of the time so farm program spending was curtailed and Peterson’s “savings” piled up. Yet it’s an interesting argument that the budgeteers have no interest in.
The savings, they quickly point out, came about for one of three reasons: either the bill was too rich to begin with or Congress finally got farm policy right in 2002 or both Peterson vowed to lobby the Budget Committee because “we need additional allocations” for items like commodity price supports, a permanent disaster program, restoring rural development programs, and an extension of the Milk Income Loss program.
Musical money. House leaders, however, have imposed a “pay-as-you-go, tough system,” the chairman added. That means new money must be found by cutting other programs, a game all committee chairman are playing prior to the budget being locked by Easter.
Also, Peterson noted he personally dislikes every one of Johanns’ ideas to cap and means test program payments and exclude IRS 1031 tax exchanges from commodity program benefits.
But, he conceded, he’s told Committee members that caps “are an issue that’s going to need to be addressed. We can’t
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