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Bush administration fights farm bill battle to bitter end

You can't say the Bush administration didn't go down swinging in its efforts to thwart the will of Congress and 1,000-plus farm organizations on the 2008 farm bill conference report.

In a press conference after President Bush vetoed the report, Deputy Agriculture Secretary Chuck Conner claimed the farm bill's new Average Crop Revenue Enhancement (ACRE) program would be “too lucrative” for corn, soybean and wheat growers.

(The statement came before House leaders discovered 24 pages had been left out of the bill sent to the president. The White House tried to make political hay out of the omission, but the House quickly passed the bill again.)

Conner said his reading of the ACRE provision led him to believe participation would be much higher for those than projections by the Congressional Budget Office, which used relatively conservative baseline figures for its analysis.

The result, he said, was that ACRE could double or triple the level of support that would be provided farmers under the old farm bill, an amount he said was approaching “parity” program levels.

His comments were interesting because USDA included a program very similar to ACRE in the farm bill proposals it released in January 2007. Back then, few anticipated corn, soybean and wheat prices would reach the levels they have, triggering the possibility of significantly higher revenue-based counter-cyclical payments.

The new payments could be higher, in part, because the administration fought against raising target prices and marketing loan rates, claiming they could cause the U.S. government to violate its World Trade Organization obligations.

Thus, the administration is being hoisted on its own petard, in some respects, because of its decision to put participation in the World Trade Organization ahead of the interests of U.S. farmers.

Conner's criticism drew the ire of the National Corn Growers Association, an organization that has supported President Bush on numerous issues, and American Farmland Trust.

“In a last-minute effort to make a case to sustain the president's expected veto of the 2008 farm bill, USDA officials are attempting to create confusion and concern over the new Average Crop Revenue Election program,” they said. “We understand and share the desire for more reform in the farm bill, but resorting to misleading statements and faulty assumptions to support a veto is wrong. Congress and the American people deserve better.”

Conner also had negative things to say about the payment limit reforms in the farm bill — despite the fact critics have said USDA could have ended much of the abuse of the system by exercising the authority it already had.

If this administration feels so strongly about the farm bill's provisions, it can do what it's done on numerous occasions — simply delay writing the regulations or issue such obscure rules no one can implement them until it leaves office in January. But trying to stop this farm bill this late in the process was the wrong policy at the wrong time.

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