School’s in session across Potomac


If you think schoolchildren dread summer school, consider the eight-week summer session agriculture’s friends in Congress face.
Front and center is the money haggling farm and ranch advocates will endure as Congress seeks to slice $35 billion in mandatory spending from the next five years’ of federal budgets by September.
The cuts, about 1.3 percent of all anticipated mandatory spending (this is fiscal restraint?), will be a big deal for the aggies because ag is ticketed to contribute a big part, $3 billion or 8.5 percent, of the total tiny slice.
Trade babble. Then there’s the endless talk, talk, talk over trade.
Can you imagine a worse way to spend a lazy, hazy day of summer than in a glazy, crazy Senate hearing over Burkino Faso’s potential 2015 cotton exports or what parts of a chicken’s plucked anatomy can be brought into the U.S. duty free?
This summer will feature all of that and more for two reasons.
CAFTA vote. First, the Bush Administration is chumming the waters now for a late-June, early July Congressional vote on the Central American Free Trade Agreement.
As such, it and its big biz-big farm group lobbying buddies are preparing a big pro-CAFTA blitz to pressure a decidedly anti-CAFTA Congress to approve the 2004 deal as it did (in just three months last year) for trade pacts with Australia, Singapore and Morocco.
CAFTA opponents already claim to have least 230 House votes, a majority, against the deal in their pocket.
If so, the fight leading up to a vote could send more feathers flying than a fox in a henhouse.
Also, the agricultural round of World Trade Organization talks is moving slower than ice uphill. That snail’s pace threatens – easily threatens – to freeze a final overall WTO trade deal for years.
Budget brouhaha. On top of all that, the outcome, if there is any this summer, of both trade and budget talks carries enormous implications for the 2007 farm bill discussions slated to begin whenever any aggie chooses to pop his head out of the rabbit hole.
Don’t expect much. The final kicker shows that Congress only has about 20 scheduled days of work between now and its annual August recess – pardon me, the “Summer District Work Period” – of Aug. 1 through Sept. 2.
Most people couldn’t teach a dog to paint or a pig to fly in just 20 days.
On the other hand, maybe teaching is the key. Or, more directly, what has Congress learned about ag budgets, farm policy and trade in the past decade that may help its leaders and members get something done this summer?
The answer in two words is not much – especially in the ag policy arena.
Shifts from supply management (crop set-asides, loan and target prices, a farmer-owned reserve) to “market oriented” (the trade-friendly Freedom to Farm) policy to, now, a witch’s brew of both kicked direct government payments to farmers into the stratosphere – from $9.3 billion in 1990 to a forecasted $24.1 billion in 2005.
That evolution, revolution and devolution, combined with changing consumer preferences and more open global ag trade, also kicked the domestic production of two key U.S. food commodities, dairy and beef, from net surplus status to net deficit status.
More open ag trade also moved the U.S. ag trade surplus from a record $29 billion in fiscal year 1996, the last year before Freedom to Farm became the guiding farm policy, to a forecasted $2 billion surplus in fiscal 2005.
But the shortcomings and cost of adopting trade-friendly ag policies can’t hold a candle to the federal budget and trade imbalance woes created by all this market corporatism.
The 2005 federal budget deficit, now projected at $400 billion, is just a tick below 2004’s record $413 billion while this year’s estimated U.S. trade deficit will leapfrog last year’s by 13 percent to another record, $700 billion.
These, like summer school to a failing student, are facts.
Fact is, too, that after repeatedly failing budget math, trade history and ag policy, Congress should be in summer session. At least, anyway, until the August “district” hooky arrives.
(Alan Guebert’s Farm and Food File is published weekly in more than 75 newspapers in North America. He can be contacted at


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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.