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Debate shows depth of limitation feelings

Is the long nightmare of the 2002 farm bill finally nearing an end? At press time, there were reports of a possible compromise on loan rates — next to payment limits and packer ownership of livestock — the most contentious issue dividing House and Senate members of the farm bill conference committee.

According to sources, Conference Chairman Larry Combest and North Dakota Sen. Kent Conrad were discussing a proposal that would raise the corn loan rate from the $1.89 a bushel in the House bill to $1.98 to $2 per bushel and the soybean loan rate from $4.92 to $5.02 to $5.05.

The levels are still below the $2.08 for corn and $5.20 for soybeans in the Senate-passed bill, but above the 1 percent increase that Combest and other House conference members proposed on April 9.

Conference members spent that afternoon debating the loan rate issue. House Republicans and White House officials argued the Senate bill would over-stimulate crop production; Senate Democrats said higher loan rates put the most money into farmers' hands.

That debate was tame compared to the Grassley-Dorgan payment limit conflagration that followed that day. House members Saxby Chambliss of Georgia, Texas' Charlie Stenholm and Combest sparred with Conrad and Senate Ag Committee Chairman Tom Harkin for nearly two hours.

Harkin and Conrad went through the litany of 70 percent of payments going to the wealthiest 10 percent of producers. But Conrad added a twist, describing an actual farming operation with multiple corporations to help it qualify for more payments.

“Honestly, this is the kind of thing that costs respect for farm programs and puts their credibility at risk,” he said. “It has hurt those of us who fight for good farm programs. And we have an obligation to do something about it.”

“I'm sure we could find any number of scenarios in different parts of the country where, on the face of it, there seems to be some abuse of the programs,” said Chambliss. “There are a couple of figures left out of the senator's scenario that would be interesting to know, however.

“No. 1, what was the investment that farming operation had to make into their farm from an operating standpoint, and No. 2, how much money did they lose? I can guarantee you that a farm that size that operated in the Southeast in recent years did not have an operating profit.”

Combest argued the Senate language would be catastrophic for legitimate operations.

Conrad, considered a friend by southern lawmakers in the past, seemed to be fellow Dakota Sen. Byron Dorgan's “dog” in this debate, telling conference members the House payment limits language was “totally unacceptable” to Senate members. That prompted Alabama's Terry Everett to say the Senate language was “equally unacceptable” to House conferees.

Both sides said neither version would be as they now appear in a final farm bill, but major differences obviously remain.

On Friday, sources were saying that if a compromise could be reached on loan rates, agreements on other issues would quickly fall into place, including the Grassley amendment. Farmers who have been waiting nearly two years for a new farm bill can only hope that isn't wishful thinking.

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