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Congressman on next farm bill: Let's try for something better

Congress may well end up extending the 2002 farm bill, says Rep. Jerry Moran, R-Kan., “but I think there are reasons we first ought to at least try to improve on the current legislation.”

The chairman of the House Subcommittee on General Farm Commodities and Risk Management said in an interview prior to the mid-year board meeting of the Delta Council at Stoneville, Miss., “from east to west, north to south, there is general and broad support for the current farm bill, and there's much discussion at the moment as to whether we should simply extend it for one, two, three, or four years.

“My impression is that many in the Delta, and national farm organizations and commodity groups feel that would be the best thing to do.

“But in this climate, we can't just assume that we could get Congress to agree to extending the current bill. It's not clear we'd have the votes to do that. This is not a Congress that's sympathetic to what you do for a living.”

Moran, who was a member of the House/Senate conference committee that fashioned the current farm bill, says, “We're pleased with the consensus in the farm community that it's working well.”

The House Agriculture Committee has held 11 hearings around the country to seek input from farmers, farm organizations, the agribusiness community, and others on the new farm bill, and Moran's subcommittee has held another four sessions.

“The message has been very clear: ‘We'd like to have a farm bill that follows the same lines of thought and policy as the current legislation.’ Exceptions are those who grow specialty crops — fruits, vegetables, nuts, etc., particularly in California and Texas. They're looking for a bigger piece of the economic pie that the farm bill provides. We have our work cut out for us, trying to figure how we can make it work for those who grow program crops and those who grow specialty crops.”

He says he doesn't agree with many who want to extend the bill until rules are in place with a World Trade Organization agreement.

“I think that would be a mistake. The WTO talks and the Doha Round are very important, but I trust the House and Senate agriculture committees a lot more than I trust 144 WTO negotiators to determine what U.S. farm policy should be. We ought to be putting farm policy in place, and then expect our (U.S. trade) negotiators to support that policy.”

Moran, who led a congressional group to the Geneva talks in April, said, “My message to our negotiators was, ‘You're asking a lot for a 60 percent reduction in domestic agricultural supports, but we may be able to accept that provided you give us genuine market access.

“We want more than the Europeans and others to simply lower tariffs. They could eliminate all their tariffs and we'd still be excluded from a wide variety of their markets. When we talk market access, it can't be just words on paper — it has to be real if we're going to live with a significant reduction in domestic supports.”

It was “a good thing,” Moran said, that the U.S. “didn't simply keep trying to negotiate until we finally got something the Europeans would agree to. They moved almost none in allowing us access to the markets.”

But not reaching an agreement will likely open the door to more WTO cases filed by other countries against a wide array of U.S. commodity programs, he says.

“Cotton will no longer be the sole target and Brazil won't be the sole country filing complaints. I've told Secretary of Agriculture Mike Johanns we need to be on the offensive in cases filed against us.”

The trade litigation, he says, “creates a greater level of uncertainty, greater difficulties for U.S. farmers, and a significant impediment to our farm bill process.” And in the absence of a WTO agreement, he says, “I worry that Brazil, China, and other countries will grow their market share. But a bad agreement at Geneva would've been worse.”

WTO issues aside, should the current farm legislation be extended for other reasons?

Perhaps, Moran says, “But I wish we in Congress, farmers, and ag organizations would have the opportunity to determine whether or not we can improve the current farm bill.”

The key factor as to whether a new farm bill can be developed next year will be the federal budget, he says.

“Next April, Congress will pass a budget that will determine how much money will be allocated for farm programs. People start their farm bill conversations with, ‘Given the fact that we'll have less money next year for the farm bill…’ I don't think we should concede that point yet.

“We need additional resources, and we members of Congress from agricultural districts should be working hard to get those resources in the budget to provide for a good farm bill.”

Farm legislation, Moran says, should be designed to provide a safety net to farmers. “Every farmer knows that since the 2002 bill was enacted, input costs have increased dramatically — fuel, fertilizer, natural gas, etc. If we're going to create a safety net, we should take into account the increases in those costs over the past five years and see if we can't come up with an even better safety net than is in the current legislation.”

Right now, though, Moran notes, “We don't know which party will be in control of Congress, we don't know what the economic climate will be, we don't know who the candidates for president will be or what positions they will take on agricultural policy.

“There well may be good reasons I will end up being a champion for extending the current farm bill, but I'd like to see how things develop over the next few months and what kind of budget authority we get, before we decide that extending the current legislation is the best we can do.”

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