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Slow Progress on the Farm Bill

Reuters writer Charles Abbott reported yesterday that, “The Senate must pass its $286 billion farm bill this week or wait until next year to vote on the package, which would protect farm revenue and expand food stamp benefits, Majority Leader Harry Reid said on Tuesday.

“‘I’m beginning to feel my doubts … that we can do a farm bill,’ Reid said, because of a week-old stalemate on the bill. In a possible breakthrough, senior Democrats and Republicans met to winnow amendments into a small list for debate.”

Mr. Abbott added that, “If the Senate passes its bill this week, lawmakers would have three weeks in December, after a two-week Thanksgiving holiday recess, to agree on a final, compromise bill to send to the president.

“One veteran farm lobbyist said Congress was unlikely to complete work this year.”

Philip Brasher, writing in today’s Des Moines Register, indicated that, “Chances are fading that the Senate can finish its $286 billion farm bill before December.

“The Senate formally took up the bill Nov. 5, but on Tuesday Democratic and Republican leaders were still trying to agree on which amendments would be allowed for consideration.

“Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said that senators were ‘highly unlikely’ to finish work on this bill this week. The Senate is due to start a two-week recess this weekend. It will return to business Dec. 3.”

Mr. Brasher added that, “Because of the dispute over the farm bill, the Senate chamber was quiet for long stretches of time Tuesday afternoon.

“The American Farm Bureau Federation and organizations representing soybean, cotton, rice and sugar growers wrote senators Tuesday urging them to pass the bill.

“‘Farmers and ranchers need to have policy in place in order to make well-informed financing, cropping and marketing decisions,’ the letter said.”

And Brownfield’s Julie Harker noted yesterday afternoon that, “With the Thanksgiving break coming up, Senator Chuck Grassley of Iowa says work on the Senate Farm Bill might not happen until December if an agreement is not reached today on the procedure for farm bill amendments.

“‘Unfortunately I haven’t seen a lot of movement yet on that effort. I’d prefer to see open debate on everyone’s amendments. It’s unfortunate that the Senate is gridlocked.’”

To listen to a FarmPolicy.com audio recap of yesterday’s Senate activities, which includes floor excerpts from Sens. Reid, Harkin, McConnell and Chambliss, just click here (MP3- about nine minutes).

Also on the Senate floor yesterday, Sen. Kent Conrad (D-ND) took issue with an article that was published in yesterday’s Washington Post regarding the Senate version of the 2007 Farm Bill.

To listen to FarmPolicy.com audio containing Sen. Conrad’s comments on this and other farm policy related issues from yesterday, just click here (MP3 about 12 minutes).

Meanwhile, The Wall Street Journal editorial board stated in today’s paper that, “Perhaps it’s beneath the dignity of Members of Congress to shop at a grocery store, but if they did they’d know that food prices are rising faster than at anytime in 17 years. Milk now costs $3 a gallon in many states. Eggs, oranges, peas, tomatoes and rice are selling at or near all-time highs. The biggest winners have been corn producers, as corn prices have doubled in two years — thanks in part to new mandates for ethanol.

“All of this is translating into the best gains in farm wealth in decades. Total farm income is expected to leap by 44% to $73 billion this year, according to the USDA. The average income of full-time farmers hit $81,420 last year, with large corporate farms earning in the millions of dollars. Meanwhile, farmland prices in the past five years have increased by $200 billion a year, or an average asset gain of $100,000 per year per full-time farmer.

“And yet Congress is writing another five-year farm bill as if this were 1936 and the Okies roamed the plains. The House has already passed a $286 billion bill, and the $291 billion version now moving through the Senate may be the largest feast of subsidies ever served up by Congress. The bill’s estimated $25 billion in direct crop payments, and another $10 billion in ‘emergency assistance’ and insurance subsidies, are stacked as high as an Iowa silo.”

The Journal opinion item also stated that, “The truth is that modern farm bills are really about buying votes in some of the most highly contested Congressional battlegrounds. North Dakota Democrat Kent Conrad recently gave this game away when he mocked Mr. Bush’s veto threat: ‘If the President wants to turn states like mine into solid Democratic states,’ a farm veto ‘would be a good way to do it.’

“Mr. Conrad chairs the Senate Budget Committee and fancies himself a ‘deficit hawk.’ His farm bill nonetheless makes a mockery of his ‘pay as you go’ budget rules by using bookkeeping gimmicks to create fictitious savings. Some $10 billion is ‘saved’ by moving farm payments just outside the official five-year budget window.

“In a rare moment of self-reflection, Iowa liberal and Senate Agriculture Chairman Tom Harkin recently admitted that farm subsidies are ‘very hard to justify when we’re having record prices and incomes.’ No kidding.”

Keith Good