Farm bill remains in closed debates


WASHINGTON – USDA and many Congressional staffers are not going to get much of a vacation during the two-week Congressional Easter recess, as they continue to work toward agreement on as many farm bill issues as they can.

Congress broke for its recess March 22.

Conference committee members still express hope that details will be finalized by mid-April.

The full committee was scheduled to meet both the morning and afternoon of March 19, but postponed both meetings and simply released a joint statement on the negotiation timetable.

“Members of Congress on the conference committee expect to be positioned to make the final farm bill decisions in public meetings of the conference the week of April 9,” according to the statement.

Also on March 19, the farm bill conferees agreed on overall budget allocation numbers. Setting a budget framework will help determine how to direct spending for commodities, conservation, nutrition, agricultural research and the other sections of the $73.5 billion, 10-year farm bill.

According to Sen. Tom Daschle, while conservation and nutrition funding are lower than in the Senate version, the levels were higher than those contained in the House bill.

Daschle said the budget allocation includes a doubling of funding for nutrition; 80 percent more for conservation; $46 million for commodities, including a $2.6 billion ‘cushion’ for potential use for commodities such as dairy, peanuts and sugar; and $3.3 billion for the remaining titles, including rural development, trade and research.

But conferees still have to tackle the divisive issues of payment limitations, packer ownership of livestock and country-of-origin meat labeling.

Relief package. If a farm bill languishes in the conference committee for too long, producers will be left without direction for the current crop season. To cover that likelihood, Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kan., introduced March 21 a $7.35 billion agricultural assistance bill that ensures producers will receive assistance above last year’s levels if Congress does not finish a new farm bill in time for it to apply to 2002 crops.

“”Timing has become critical. Even if new farm legislation is passed shortly after Congress returns from the Easter recess, it would be too late to implement before late summer. That would be devastating for producers who need to know now how to plan for the new year,” Roberts said.

Roberts said his legislation relies on formulas under the 2000 AMTA payment and thus could be implemented more easily by USDA. The year 2000 date was used because it results in higher payments than the 2001 and 2002 AMTA formulas and the 2001 market loss assistance formula.

“We are going to do everything in our power to get a farm bill completed and out the door. But, we should also make sure it is a good bill, and doing a good bill takes time,” Roberts said in introducing the measure.

“If additional time is needed to complete the bill, past the time when it can apply to this year’s crops, we are then ready to come in with a supplemental assistance package.”

Get our Top Stories in Your Inbox

Next step: Check your inbox to confirm your subscription.