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Harkin: Senate bill will include tougher payment limits

Farmers concerned about the new payment limit rules in the House version of the 2007 farm bill should not pin their hopes on getting a better deal in the Senate.

While Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, would not spell out any specifics, he made it clear to reporters he expects the Senate farm bill to go farther on payment limits than the House version.

“It will be tougher than the House bill,” said Harkin, responding to a question about the $1 million adjusted gross income limit in the House bill, during his weekly telephone press conference. The House bill also requires direct attribution of farm program payments.

In his opening comments, Harkin said a top priority of the bill that has yet to be unveiled by the Senate Agriculture Committee will be continuing strong farm income protection. That will not mean settling for an extension of the status quo as he said the House bill does.

“I favor a system that places a stronger focus on paying farmers when their incomes fall and when they really need help,” he said. “But we also need to create a system that is fairer — both to farmers and to taxpayers.

“We cannot go forward with a system that paid more than $1 billion to the estates of deceased farmers and doled out another $1.3 billion to landowners who don't even farm the land at all,” he noted, referring to reports that appeared in the Washington Post a few days before the House vote on the farm bill.

Harkin also gave some hints about the behind-the-scenes farm bill discussions that have been taking place among his committee members. That includes backing away from earlier statements about reducing direct payments and transferring the funds to the new farm bill's conservation programs.

“The committee won't support it,” he said. “Now what happens on the floor is a different matter. There probably will be measures on the floor to do things like that. But, quite frankly, I don't know where the votes are on that.”

He also said he sees little chance the Senate bill will raise loan rates for program crops. “I just don't think that's in the cards. I think we will see more of the revenue-based counter-cyclical program that's been proposed by the National Corn Growers Association. The more I look at it, the more I like that. But, again, a lot will depend on the committee.”

The chairman indicated one area where he has no desire to compromise is in increasing funding for the Conservation Security Program that he almost single-handedly wrote into the 2002 farm bill.

The House farm bill, the Farm, Nutrition and Bioenergy Act of 2002, delays further signups for the Conservation Security Program until 2012 and transfers the savings to the Environmental Quality Incentives Program.

“It is totally unacceptable to stop signups until 2012, and that won't happen,” he said. “We will continue signups in the CSP program next year and the year after and all the way through to 2012. My goal is to have 80 million acres in CSP by the end of this farm bill.”

As farmers plant more corn to meet the demand for ethanol, including 17 million more acres of corn in 2007, the Conservation Security Program will be even more important, Harkin said.

“A lot of that is on hilly land, on fragile land, and more than ever, we need a CSP-type program to give encouragement and incentives to farmers to do no-till and to do good practices so they won't be eroding that soil or strip-mining their land by over-cropping or continuous corn on corn or those type practices.”

But Harkin also cited some areas of agreement between himself and the authors of the House bill, including its provisions for providing increased funding for the greatly reduced budget baseline in the 2007 legislation.

House leaders included a proposal to raise $7.8 billion by eliminating a tax loophole that allows foreign-owned corporations to transfer U.S. earnings to countries with lower tax rates and diverting royalties from offshore oil drilling to the farm bill. The move touched off a revolt by House Republicans and brought a veto threat from the White House.

“Quite frankly, there are some loopholes out there that we can close,” he said. “In the Senate we passed an amendment to the energy bill to go after those oil royalties. We got 57 or 58 votes for that. We needed 60. Some didn't like where the money was going.

“If some of that money went to agriculture for cellulose and biomass production and for conservation, perhaps the Senate would be more inclined to vote for that. We may get more than enough votes over here to use some of that money that's going to be collected to put into the farm bill.”

Harkin said he believes some Republican senators would vote to close the foreign earnings loophole, as well. “I want to compliment the House for closing that loophole, and I hope we can do the same here.”

The veto threat? “If it is just based on fact the farm bill is over the base line, the administration farm bill is over the baseline,” Harkin said. “It's just a question of how much it's over the baseline.”

Asked about the Senate ag committee's farm bill timetable, Harkin said he could make a chairman's mark outlining his proposals available for the ag media during the week of Aug. 6.

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