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Column: Payment limit battle takes another turn

It appears that the reports of the demise of the Bush administration’s quest for lower payment limits to help reduce the federal budget deficit may have been somewhat exaggerated.

On April 12, Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns told Senate Appropriations Committee members he realized some of the administration proposals, such as the reduction in payment limits, were sensitive, and he was willing to work with Congress on other cost savings recommendations.

At least two members of Congress and several media organizations took that to mean Johanns was backing away from the administration’s insistence that payments be capped at $250,000 per farmer. But 24 hours later, media outlets received the following e-mail from USDA’s press office:

“I would note for you that we are still supporting the call in the president’s budget to tighten payment limits, and we have not, nor do we intend to withdraw that proposal, which we think is very reasonable and an important part of achieving our main goal: to reduce the budget deficit in half by 2009.”

Asked to comment on a statement by Rep. Henry Bonilla, R-Texas, indicating the House Ag Appropriations Subcommittee chairman thought the administration had changed its position, press secretary Ed Loyd said USDA had not changed its objective of finding $5.7 billion in savings from farm programs.

Asked the same question later in the week, Johanns told reporters he never intended to imply any lessening of support for the president’s budget.

“I am absolutely committed to the president’s proposals,” he said, “and he’s got it right. You know, his whole notion here is, we’ve got to get the deficit under control. High deficit is not good for agriculture, and every farmer and rancher knows that. They deal with interest rates; they deal with the need to balance their budget.

“It gets back to the point that we have to be a part of this; we have to be ready and willing to do our fair share here. Every federal department is being asked to do the same.”

By the end of the week, farm organizations issued statements praising Johanns for at least being willing to work with Congress on the budget plan. Their words had an edge to them, however.

The National Cotton Council praised Johanns’ commitment to work with Congress so that “the administration’s budget proposal will not undermine the nation’s agricultural sector.”

USA Rice Federation officials focused on Johanns “sensitive” comment. “We hope that sensitivity will soon lead to constructive, successful dialogue between farmers, Congress and the administration, and that’s next year’s federal budget will not hurt farmers and their families.”

So farmers, lenders, chemical suppliers, seed companies and all the other entities that have a stake in southern row crop agriculture are still under the gun on payment limits. And Rep. Bonilla and Sen. Blanche Lincoln, D-Ark., and others who thought they saw a light at the end of the tunnel now have to wonder if it’s an oncoming train.

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