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Closed-door sessions are not secret

Being a journalist, I have to admit I get suspicious when someone on the public payroll holds meetings behind closed doors. So I would normally be sympathetic to a question raised by Reuters correspondent Chuck Abbott during Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman's March 28 press conference.

Actually, it was a two-part question — which journalists are famous for asking when they don't think they will be invited to ask another one. The first part dealt with how much impact this year's disaster program would have on crop plantings given that signup would not begin until June 6. Then Abbott asked: “How much credibility do you believe Congress and farmers will attach to the report that's being drawn up by your Payment Limits Commission, considering the commission is doing all its work in secret, and I've already had some people say to me they think it's just a stacked deck that will favor producers.”

Coincidentally or fortuitously, Veneman had invited Keith Collins, USDA's chief economist, to sit in on the briefing. Collins chairs the Payment Limits Commission.

For openers, Collins said, Congress exempted the Commission from the Federal Advisory Committee Act when it created the panel in the 2002 farm bill. Thus, the commission does not have to give public notice or invite the press to its meetings.

“I think Congress contemplated that this is an area of some interest and sensitivity,” he said, “and the commission wanted to be able to talk with people who implement or enforce or audit payment limitation cases. Members simply felt they would get more frank opinions from those people if members of the press weren't sitting there.”

Collins said he wouldn't characterize the commission's meetings as secret, likening them instead to work sessions where members are trying to analyze what exactly payment limits do for or to farmers.

“They are interested in public comments, and that's why the commission held a public comment period,” he said. “They're free to talk about what they're doing as commissioners, and hopefully soon the commission will have a report which will help people better understand what payment limits are all about.”

The commission received more than 100 letters during the 30-day comment period that ended in mid-March, he said, adding that the commission will continue to take comments even though the 30 days have ended.

Those who think the commission should come down on the side of tighter — or less stringent — payment limits are likely to be disappointed, according to Collins.

“They're not leaning in any particular direction,” he said, “but are trying to understand the effects of farm program payments and what the effects would be if those payments were limited. That's what Congress asked them to do so that Congress will understand what the effects would be.”

Am I sympathetic to Abbott's question? No, I'm more appreciative that commission members have not allowed Ken Cook and the Environmental Working Group to turn the deliberations into a media circus, generating a lot of heat and little light. That, in itself, should give farmers hope for a more balanced commission report.


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