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Acting Secretary Conner: USDA urges Senate to finish farm bill

Acting Agriculture Secretary Chuck Conner said he is “grateful” that the Senate Agriculture Committee has reached an agreement on a new farm bill and could schedule a mark-up session on the legislation as early as this week.

Conner, meeting with reporters following his speech at the World Food Prize's Norman E. Borlaug International Symposium, said the development moves farmers one step closer to knowing what the “rules of the game” would be for the 2008 crops.

The comments came a day after Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman Tom Harkin announced he had reached an agreement with key members of the committee on a farm bill that would provide $10 billion in increased funding for conservation, rural development, energy and nutrition programs.

“We're grateful to Sen. Harkin for scheduling that mark-up,” said Conner.

“We appreciate his work in getting us to this point and would really encourage the Senate and ultimately the House and Senate conferees to move quickly and get a bill we can encourage the president to sign.”

Conner, former staff director of the Senate Agriculture Committee, has been involved with USDA's farm bill policy recommendations since he became deputy secretary in May 2005. (He was named acting secretary after Mike Johanns resigned the post in September to run for the Senate from Nebraska.)

With Johanns, Conner moderated some of the Agriculture Department's Farm Bill Forums in 2005 and oversaw the writing of some of the position papers that ultimately became part of the farm policy recommendations USDA issued last January.

“One of the reasons we chose to unveil our farm bill proposals last January, which I think many considered to be well ahead of schedule, was that we wanted to get this farm bill done early,” he said.

“We wanted to get about the business of administering that bill so that our producers could know, going into the buying season in preparation for the 2008 crop, what the rules of the game were going to be.”

The House moved relatively quickly, passing its version of the 2007 farm bill in late July. “But we've had a difficult time with the Senate getting them to act,” he noted. “My understanding is they are getting close to an agreement and are scheduled for a mark-up (this week).”

Sen. Harkin, D-Iowa, has said the Senate Agriculture Committee has taken longer to write its bill because members have been seeking ways to fund the new programs they wanted to include in the legislation.

Conner's comments came as a group of 13 of the country's largest farm organizations sent a letter to Harkin and Sen. Sax by Chambliss, ranking member on the Agriculture Committee, urging them to take prompt action on the 2007 farm bill.

“While each of our organizations may have concerns and questions about details of the framework agreement, particularly the relatively new version of a revenue option, we believe it is critically important to schedule a committee mark-up and floor consideration as soon as possible using your framework agreement as the basis,” the letter said.

“We understand the Senate may adjourn on Nov. 16,” said the letter. “We believe it is imperative that the Senate complete work on its version of new farm legislation prior to that date so a conference committee can be appointed.”

The organizations, which include the National Cotton Council, American Soybean Association, American Sugar Alliance, National Farmers Union, National Sorghum Producers and the USA Rice Federation, noted that some provisions of the current farm law have recently expired.

While acknowledging most of what he knows about the Harkin farm bill proposal has come from press accounts, Conner said that what he has read about the direction the Senate Agriculture Committee is taking is “encouraging.”

“Many of the public comments that we have heard from Chairman Harkin and others do suggest that a lot of the priorities that we put forward in our farm bill proposals have been picked up in this bill that will be considered by the committee,” he told reporters.

Among those are improved conservation programs, a strong rural development title and increased funding for bioenergy research and development programs, a subject Conner covered during his speech to the World Food Prize Symposium.

“The topic of bioenergy, we understand, has well over a billion dollars in funding for research, for commercialization activities with a lot of focus on cellulosic ethanol. This tracks, by appearance, very closely with the types of things that we have recommended, including some loan guarantees for cellulosic plants to begin operation.”

The acting secretary said he would not discuss whether he would recommend President Bush veto a Senate version of the farm bill as his predecessor did after the House passed a bill that included new taxes on the U.S. earnings of foreign corporations and off-shore oil production activities.

“I'm not really going to talk about a veto,” said Conner. “I've had a great relationship with Sen. Harkin through the years — and with (House Agriculture Committee Chairman Collin) Peterson through the years, so I'm not going to discuss that.”

On the other hand, the Bush administration continues to believe the Senate should “recognize the need to reform some of our Title 1 (the Commodity Title) farm programs as well.

“The administration's proposals do a lot more toward targeting our government subsidies to those who need it most,” said Conner. “One of the complaints we heard around the countryside about the last farm bill was the simple fact that when you harvested a record crop you also collected loan deficiency payments.

“Frankly, many farmers didn't need those payments because they had such a good harvest. But if you had a total wipeout, you didn't have anything to collect loan deficiency payments and prices went up and no counter-cyclical payments were triggered, the government had no help for you at all.”

Conner said it appears the Senate bill does include a portion of the revenue-based counter-cyclical program that was also included in the administration proposals. “Again, it appears to be rather complicated and has a number of nuances and triggers, but in picking up that plan they've acknowledged that we need to provide the most help when farmers need it the most.”

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