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Harkin: farm bill framework in place, funding questionable

The framework for a new farm bill is in place. However, funds to pay for it remain elusive.

Speaking at an April 4 press conference, Iowa Senator Tom Harkin, chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee, said the framework — which he isn't enthusiastic about — had come about as “the result of very intense negotiations between the Senate and House.

“In consultation with the conferees … we've made a good deal of progress towards crafting the bill. (We're) working diligently towards the April 18 deadline, when the current short-term extension expires.

“Our framework assumes the $10 billion above baseline funding that's been agreed for some time. This $10 billion along with some funds scrubbed from the baseline, will allow us to meet our obligations and priorities: farm income protection, specialty crops, nutrition, conservation and energy.”

A new disaster program “that a few people want” will also be included as will new funding for environmental and energy programs.

Another area, nutrition, will also get more funds — something House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Charlie Rangel insists upon following the Congressional Budget Office projection that 28 million American families will be on the food stamp rolls in 2009.

Currently, plans for the new farm bill allocate $9.5 billion for nutrition and $4 billion for disaster programs.

“It has been a challenging process,” allowed Harkin. “We're trying to accommodate all the expectation and demands with limited funding … but in the end I think we'll have a pretty decent bill.”

Sen. Charles Grassley of Iowa and Sen. Byron Dorgan of North Dakota have introduced a four-point plan developed by a Nebraska think tank (see Proponents say the plan would save money through payment limitations that would help bridge the farm bill's funding gap.

Harkin didn't dismiss the plan outright. “It isn't clear that it'll make any headway (considering) the makeup of committees. You know where the votes are on this. You know where my vote is. I could support it and I like it. But I don't know if it will sail. It might — it might be an item that comes up in conference and we'll see where the votes are.”

What are Harkin's views on beneficial interest when farmers own grain after they've received loan deficiency payments?

“Again, I don't know how many votes in conference will be to change that. I know the (Bush) administration is hot for it. But, let's face it: there are votes in committee that aren't….

“Reforms are all right. I agree there should be reforms and voted that way. But my vote didn't carry. But (such things) won't gain a whole heck of a lot of money. It's more an idea of fairness in equity than anything else.”

Harkin also addressed rumors that a chief holdup on new legislation is Republican senators defending direct payments and refusing to make concession on payment limits.

“That's factual…. There are some here that just won't budge on such things. But do they have the votes when the crunch comes? Do they want to kill the whole bill and stop it from passing?

“We will vote on that. And, as far as I'm concerned as chairman of the conference, those will be open votes and we'll see what people want to do. They may prevail … but certainly people will know where the votes are ….

“I'm not very happy with (the framework) myself, to tell the truth. But we have to get the bill done. I'm not happy with some cuts in conservation (and) in energy. But, overall, I can support it and won't fight. It's better than nothing …. It's better than an extension (of current law) — much better than an extension.”

Conservation spending is now pegged at $4 billion — “about halfway between the Senate and House (proposals). That makes sense when considering a compromise.

“I'd like to have more — and it's one of the things I'm not too happy about in this bill. Here we are, plowing more land and planting more crops to respond to market conditions. And we know what's happening to our soil and water. We know what's happening in the Gulf of Mexico. We know what's happening in our rivers and streams. I know what Des Moines is telling me about the cost to clean up the intake systems for drinking water. A lot of N and K are leaching into our waterways.

“In response to higher prices, farmers are putting on more fertilizer …. That's why I pushed so hard on the CSP program — to give farmers incentives to better apply and not (overuse) fertilizer, to do things like minimum tillage. If we don't do that, we'll continue to mine our land — almost strip mine it ….

“The best we can do is provide meaningful economic incentives to help farmers do what they want to do anyway. But they feel they can't do (those things) because of economic pressures. That's why CSP — and EQIP, as well — are vitally, vitally important.”

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