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Beginning to sound like a broken record

Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns must be a proponent of the idea that if you repeat something often enough people will come to believe it. In a spate of recent appearances in the Mid-South, Johanns and Deputy Secretary Chuck Conner said over and over that farmers must accept spending cuts to help reduce the federal deficit.

Speaking to farmers in Memphis and later in Little Rock, Johanns said failing to cut the deficit in half by 2010 — as President Bush has proposed — will have disastrous consequences for agriculture.

“It isn't good for any part of agriculture to have federal deficits at this level,” Johanns said in Memphis, referring to projections of massive deficits for the remainder of the decade. “I've said it's a little bit like taking your kids' checkbook and writing checks out of that.”

Deputy Secretary Conner echoed those comments in a press conference at the Delta Council annual meeting in Cleveland, Miss., adding that the deficit must be reduced to keep interest rates from rising.

The problem for Johanns and Conner is that farmers, at least in cotton and rice, aren't buying it. While agreeing the deficit must be reduced, they disagree with the Bush administration's methods.

At each of the stops by Johanns and Conner — the deputy secretary spoke to a breakfast meeting of Delta Council leaders before the group's annual meeting — growers said the contribution being asked of them exceeds agriculture's less than 1 percent share of the federal budget.

Georgia Sen. Saxby Chambliss, chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee, was able to put together a compromise provision in the fiscal 2006 budget resolution that lowered agriculture's cuts to $3 billion (vs. the president's proposal of $9 billion).

But what troubles many Sun Belt farmers is that one of the president's primary mechanisms for reducing farm spending remains in play despite repeated attempts to get the administration to back away from lower payment limits.

For many, that represents a betrayal of the promises made when President Bush signed the 2002 farm bill.

“You're talking about totally wrecking farming operations,” said Bill Bristow, an attorney who spoke at the Little Rock meeting. “It will devastate land prices and the rural economy. Most of the banks will fail. You're trying to save money by skimping a few dollars from payment limits. But the devastation you will reap will be many, many times more expensive.”

As in the other meetings, Johanns did not respond directly to such statements. Instead, he repeated his promise to conduct a series of listening sessions on the reauthorization of the farm bill, which is scheduled to occur in 2007.

Strangely, there were few comments about the president's call for more tax cuts. The fiscal 2006 budget resolution adopted by the House and Senate last month contains $70 billion in tax cuts and only $35 billion in spending reductions. It's difficult to see how Congress can make much headway on deficit reduction with numbers like those.

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