Farm bill caught up in politics

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WASHINGTON – Will it or won’t it? Will the farm bill get out of conference committee this spring or won’t it? That was the hot debate in Washington as the Ohio Farm Bureau county presidents hit the Hill on their annual lobbying trip March 12-14.

The March 22 Easter recess deadline loomed large in many of the conversations with legislators and lobbyists in D.C., but few were optimistic about finalizing a conference farm bill by then – although conference committee members still hold that date as a goal for completing the committee’s work.

Some committee members, however, say it can’t be done, and even went so far as to say it’s too optimistic to expect a farm bill this year.

The reality, said John Boehner, Ohio’s lone voice on the House Ag Committee (http://agriculture.house.gov/farmbill.htm), is that after the Easter recess in an election year, the rhetoric goes up and the productivity goes down.

All of the House of Representatives and one-third of the Senate are up for re-election this year.

“It’s going to be hard for some people to back away from these positions, especially before the election,” Boehner said. “This is just a bad environment for public policy.”

Expect interim aid. Boehner and other key parties look for another emergency supplemental farm measure to be approved this year so lawmakers won’t have the politics of an election year muddying the farm bill waters.

Boehner, who sits on the conference committee, said there is no real agreement between the House and Senate conferees. “There is no real consensus about what the farm bill should look like,” he said. “When there’s no clear consensus, we kind of wobble around, and that’s a recipe for very bad policy.”

The current farm bill expires the first of October.

The full conference committee, chaired by House Agriculture Chairman Larry Combest, R-Texas, met for the first time March 13 and was to meet March 19 in the afternoon for Round 2.

In addition to Boehner, Ohio’s Mike Oxley will serve on the committee for portions of the bill related to his Financial Services committee assignment.

‘Pencil dust.’ At the committee’s first meeting, the “friendly” tension was palpable, according to published reports, particularly when Boehner emptied a cup of pencil shavings onto the table in front of him, a reference to Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman Tom Harkin’s dismissal of a $6.1 billion overrun in the Senate version as ‘pencil dust.”

Boehner said that $6.1 billion is “real money – and a substantial amount, at that.”

Lots to do. The House bill, which passed Oct. 5 by a 219-120 vote, is 367 pages; the Senate version, approved Feb. 13 with a final vote of 58 to 40, runs 1,333 pages.

Once the committee hammers out a compromise on the $73.5 billion, $10-year farm bill, the measure is sent back to the House and Senate for votes, and from Congress goes to the President for his signature.

The crunch time comes after the president’s signature, when various federal agencies write implementing rules and regs.

If Congress moves on the farm bill by tomorrow, March 22, the legislation could be implemented as early as June; if Congress doesn’t pass it until June, it could be late fall before implementation.

Regardless of what farm bill finally gets hammered out, U.S. Rep. Charles Stenholm, D-Texas, told the Ohio farm delegation that it won’t solve all their problems.

“This farm bill isn’t going to save us, folks,” Stenholm said. “It’s just another finger in the dike.”

Sticky issues. The hot topics are the payment limitations and packer ownership ban (see related article).

The Farm Bureau is pushing most of the House provisions, particularly on payment limits, calling the Senate language “onerous.” The Senate version includes a total payment limit of $275,000, half of the House version, with a total payment limit if $550,000.

The Farm Bureau is also backing the House version, which provides payments on only 85 percent of the producer’s base. The Senate bill pays on 100 percent of base acres.

The farm group, however, likes the Senate provision that lets farmers update their yield base from the current base of 1981-1985.

A major difference in the bills is in conservation. The Senate (http://www.senate.gov/~agriculture/index.html) spends $6.6 billion more on conservation than does the House, a figure remarkably close to Harkin’s “pencil dust,” a fact that worries conservation supporters.

Although key ag leader Boehner admits the current politically charged environment is counterproductive for public policy, the process works.

“It’s inefficient, but it really does work.”

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