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2007 Farm Bill: What Direction Now?

DTN writer Chris Clayton reported on Friday (link requires subscription) that, “Sitting on the other side of Capitol Hill, House Agriculture Committee Chairman Collin Peterson was anxiously waiting to start final negotiations on the farm bill over the congressional Thanksgiving break.

“With the failure of a key vote Friday in the U.S. Senate, Peterson, D-Minn., realizes now he might be lucky to have those talks with senators and the Bush administration sometime closer to New Year’s Eve.

“‘I’m disappointed they were not able to get something accomplished by this week to get to conference,’ Peterson said Friday in a conference call with reporters. ‘I don’t see a scenario where they are going to get a bill out of the Senate and we are going to get out of conference before Christmas.’”

(To listen to Chairman Peterson’s conference call with reporters, see this AgWired Blog update from Friday).

Mr. Clayton added that, “The House passed its farm bill in July. If the Senate can move in December, then the bill could be done potentially sometime in January, Peterson said. Once the Senate gets the bill ‘off the floor’ there could be pre-conference talks quickly that could probably resolve as much as 75 percent of any differences between the House and Senate versions fairly easily, Peterson said.

“‘Frankly, I think the rest of it could be worked out in a week or so, once we get back and get the formal conference going,’ he said.”

The DTN article noted that, “Peterson doesn’t back a full one-year extension of the 2002 farm bill offered Thursday by House Republicans because that extension could be more problematic than supporters anticipate. Groups expecting increases in funding from the new farm bill, for instance, would not back an extension. Any extension also would likely have to carry through 2009 and the next president, he said.

“‘I think it’s just too early to talk about it,’ Peterson said. ‘We don’t have any real crises coming up…I just think an extension is not a responsible thing to be talking about right now.’”

Dan Looker, writing on Friday at Agriculture Online also highlighted Chairman Peterson’s press conference, and reported that, “But Peterson said he still thinks a farm bill is possible early next year, that he hopes farm-state voters will convince a few more Republican senators to join Democrats in passing a farm bill when Congress returns from its Thanksgiving recess in December.”

Mr. Looker indicated that, “Peterson said there will be little support for extending a farm bill. He chuckled when he said that the extension bill filed yesterday was identical to one he had introduced when he was in the minority on the committee — something the bill’s author, Kansas Republican Jerry Moran said as well on Thursday.

“The House and Senate ag committee versions of a farm bill have broad support among farm groups, Peterson said, so supporting an extension without the farm bill’s new programs might be tough.

“‘Just about everybody I know of thinks this bill is much better than the current law,’ he said.”

The article also stated that, “Peterson said that pushing farm bill completion into early 2008 won’t have to trigger older farm laws. A farm bill has been approved even later in the year in the past.”

(For more specific perspective on the 2007 Farm Bill from the House, see, “A FarmPolicy.com Interview with U.S. Representative Adrian Smith (R-Neb.)” (audio podcast about nine minutes.))

Congressional Quarterly writer Catharine Richert reported on Friday that, “Farm-state lawmakers say they’re not ready to give up on the 2007 farm bill, even after two weeks of gridlock in the Senate over amendments and a failed vote to limit debate.

“‘We can’t permit this to go down,’ said Agriculture Chairman Tom Harkin, D-Iowa. ‘We’ve come too far to turn back now.’

“Harkin appeared with other farm-state members at a news conference Nov. 16 after a vote to invoke cloture on the bill failed, 55-42. He expressed hope that leadership could reach an agreement on amendments after Congress returns from the Thanksgiving Day recess, or hold another cloture vote.”

On Saturday, San Francisco Chronicle writer Carolyn Lochhead, reported that, “Crop subsidies are still on that must-fund list, mainly to protect the vulnerable Democrats in farm country. The question is how long can they stay there, especially the $26 billion in direct payments that go to farmers regardless of whether they grow anything – in a year that farm income is higher than ever before.

“To avoid reducing crop payments, while increasing food stamps, environmental programs and help for organic farmers and fruit and vegetable growers, House Democrats approved a farm bill in July that increased taxes on foreign corporations operating in the United States.

“The Senate bill raised $16 billion through an array of budget gimmicks and what many contend are dubious assumptions of revenue gains from tax loophole closings. Much of it went to pay for a big new crop disaster program that will mainly benefit drought-prone areas of the High Plains, backed by Sens. Kent Conrad, D-N.D., and Max Baucus, D-Mont. To broaden support, extra money was thrown in for a variety of other programs.”

The Chronicle article also stated that, “The tax increases have eroded what traditionally has been stalwart Republican support for crop subsidies. House Republicans revolted on the farm bill in July after a last-minute Democratic move to increase taxes. The administration has threatened to veto the House and Senate bills because of their budget ploys and tax increases, and many Senate Republicans outside the South and Midwest farm belt are loath to raise taxes to pay for farmers.

“Democrats argue that Republicans blocked the farm bill to save themselves from having to defend a White House veto in farm country. Peterson said the administration’s insistence on tougher payment limits that would hit cotton and rice farmers especially hard is ‘tough to swallow in the South. … It’s going to be difficult for Republican senators to have the president going after their constituents.’

“For Democrats, however, crop subsidies concentrated in about seven states in the Plains, Midwest and South may be increasingly unpalatable as well. A broad alliance of public health, environmental, overseas development and other reform groups have focused unprecedented scrutiny on the subsidies this year. If the Senate bill returns to the floor, many Democrats, including California Sens. Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein, face uncomfortable votes on continuing crop subsidies bitterly opposed by interest groups they count as allies.”

Additional perspectives on the status of the 2007 Farm Bill from U.S. Senators have also been noted over the past couple of days.

Gary Lookadoo reported on Saturday at the Benton County Daily Record (Arkansas) Online that, “U.S. Sen. Blanche Lincoln will continue to work for passage of a national farm bill she considers well balanced, and to keep it from being amended by some Senate Republicans, Lincoln, D-Ark., said Thursday.

“‘One of my most critical jobs now is to keep that bill intact, to make sure what we did in (the Senate Agriculture ) Committee, and the balance we brought forward, is not blown up by members who really have no concept of what the needs of rural America happen to be,’ Lincoln said.”

The article indicated that, “‘Our farm families, in Arkansas and across rural America, need certainty,’ Lincoln said. ‘They need the certainty of knowing that their government stands with them. If they don’t know their government stands with them, it’s going to be very, very hard for us to be able to maintain that unbelievable domestic production of safe, and affordable, and available supplies of food and fiber.’

“Yet, with the farm bill still not enacted, farmers — including those in Arkansas beginning to plant their winter wheat crop — still don’t know what farm policy will look like next year, she said.”

Faith Bremner, writing on Saturday at the Great Falls Tribune (Montana) Online, reported that, “‘This is a good farm bill and the fact that Republicans want to put on all these amendments that have nothing to do with agriculture is real unfortunate,’ [Sen. Jon Tester (D-MT)] said. ‘They’ve got a different agenda, obviously.’

“Tester also said the farm bill delay ‘tops the list’ of ridiculous things he has seen since he was elected to the Senate last year.”

The article also stated that, “Republicans, however, blamed Democrats for the delay.

“The top Republican on the Senate Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry Committee, Saxby Chambliss of Georgia, accused [Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.)] of shutting down the process last week by refusing to accept any amendments.”

Scott Wente reported on Saturday at the Bemidji Pioneer (Minnesota) Online that, “[Sen. Norm Coleman (R-Minn.)] said there is too much good policy at stake in the new proposal to accept an extension of existing agriculture policy.

“‘I still believe we’re going to get a (new) farm bill,’ Coleman said.”

Meanwhile, Michael Grunwald noted on Saturday at Time Magazine Online that, “So now what? The coalition of environmentalists, aid groups, health advocates, rural groups, anti-tax activists, sustainable agriculture groups and free traders who fought unsuccessfully for reform will get another chance when the Senate takes up the bill up again — possibly as soon as December, or conceivably as late as 2009. But politicians are amazingly reluctant to oppose farm bills, because they don’t want to be portrayed as enemies of the heartland of America, and they don’t want to cross the powerful farm lobby.

“Some politicians are already talking about extending the 2002 farm bill for another year, but there’s going to be heavy bipartisan pressure to pass a new bill with new goodies. Politicians from disaster-prone states like the Dakotas and Montana won’t want to give up the $5 billion ‘permanent disaster fund’ they tucked into the Senate bill to protect marginal farms. And the corresponding House bill includes scads of new money for nutrition, conservation, fruit and vegetable farms, organic certification, and other programs desired by various interest groups. That’s why even the National Wildlife Federation sent out a press release Thursday declaring: ‘Senate Needs to Move Farm Bill Forward.’”

With respect to executive branch perspective on the Farm Bill debate, Terry Woster reported on Saturday at the Argus Leader (South Dakota) Online that, “A new farm bill still could pass Congress this year, a Bush administration agriculture official said Friday.

“Bruce Knight, a Gann Valley native who is undersecretary of agriculture for marketing and regulatory programs, said talk of pushing the bill over until sometime next year might be premature.

“‘The opportunity is there, if the will is there to come together,’ Knight told members of the South Dakota Farm Bureau in Pierre. ‘It’s still very possible a farm bill will come up for consideration following the Thanksgiving recess or even after the first of the year.’”

The article also indicated that, “South Dakota Sens. Tim Johnson, Democrat, and John Thune, Republican, both voted to close debate. The move needed 60 voted and received 55. Thune was one of four Republican senators to support the move.

“The apparent political division in recent weeks is unusual for a farm bill, Knight said.

“‘It usually doesn’t break along party lines,’ he said after his address in Pierre. ‘It’s usually about regional differences more than political parties.’”

In more specific analysis of the House and Senate versions of the 2007 Farm Bill, Des Moines Register writer Philip Brasher noted on Sunday that, “A version of the bill that passed the House would increase EQIP [Environmental Quality Incentives Program] funding by $1.9 billion over the next five years to help fill requests from farmers such as [cattle producer John Hall]. Demand has long outstripped the program’s annual budget. In 2006, the U.S. Agriculture Department funded about 60 percent of what was requested.

“But that extra money for EQIP in the House bill came at the direct expense of the Conservation Security Program, which provides annual payments to farms as a reward for practices that conserve soil, protect water quality and enhance wildlife habitat.

“The Senate’s farm bill would do the opposite – it would hold EQIP funding levels while providing an additional $2 billion over five years for CSP, enough to add 13 million acres a year. CSP was created in the 2002 farm bill at the insistence of Sen. Tom Harkin, the Iowa Democrat who chairs the Senate Agriculture Committee.

“Harkin also will chair the House-Senate conference committee that will write the final version, and Harkin said he won’t agree to cutting the Senate bill’s funding for CSP. The program’s growth has been stunted because the funding in the 2002 farm bill was slashed by Congress in ensuing years for disaster aid and other needs.”

Doha

Dow Jones New writer Gabriella Stern reported today that, “U.S. Trade Representative Susan Schwab said Monday the U.S. is ‘steadfastly committed’ to a successful conclusion of the Doha round of World Trade Organization talks.

“She said she believes an agreement is possible ‘in the near future,’ during the current U.S. presidential administration and Congress.”

The Dow Jones article also noted that, “Citing the U.S. House of Representatives’ recent approval of a U.S.-Peru bilateral free trade pact, she said the current Congress, despite its fair share of protectionist members, has shown signs of flexibility on trade issues. The Peru agreement is awaiting Senate action.

“‘Something has changed in terms of U.S. trade politics,’ she said.

“Without providing specifics, Schwab said issues dividing Doha negotiators in Geneva don’t necessarily fall along traditional developing-versus-developed-nations fault lines. The conflicts are now more nuanced and separate the U.S. and like-minded nations from ‘some countries that aren’t inclined to make contributions commensurate with their level of development,’ she said.

“Overall, she added, the Doha talks ‘are moving in the right direction.’”

EU- Common Agricultural Policy (CAP)

An AFP article from yesterday reported that, “The European Union launches this week a root-and-branch review of its Common Agriculture Policy amid growing pressure to ease production limits in the face of a global commodities boom.

“On Tuesday the European Commission kicks off a ‘health-check’ of Europe’s generous farm support system, which was foreseen under a sweeping shake-up of the CAP in 2003.

“After a consultation period, the EU’s executive arm aims to come up with reform proposals in the first half of 2008 to be decided on during the second half of the year when France, Europe’s biggest farm power, hold the bloc’s presidency.”

Jack Thurston, writing at the CAP Health Check Blog on Thursday, provided an excellent link to additional information regarding Tuesday’s health check launch.

Specifically, Mr. Thurston stated that, “Anyone itching to find out what the Commission will be proposing for the CAP health check next Tuesday 20 November need look no further. DG Agri is as leaky as the proverbial sieve and after the jump we have for your reading pleasure the latest version of the consultation document, including a markup of changes made since the AgraFacts leak back in October. (Commission leak – PDF version).”

Keith Good