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High stakes on table in farm bill debate

The high stakes poker game between Congress and the Bush administration over the farm bill is enough to put the fear of the Almighty into even the most hardened gambler. And the spectators who will be most affected by the outcome, the nation’s farmers and ranchers, can do little but watch and send representatives to offer opinions.

“Defeat is not an option,” said Ted Higginbottom, a Seminole, Texas, peanut farmer and chairman of the United Peanut Alliance. Higginbottom offered an update on likely scenarios in this debate that never ends during a recent Oklahoma Peanut Expo in Lone Wolf, Okla.

“I think representative Collin Peterson (chairman of the House Agriculture Committee) and the secretary of agriculture will get together and devise a bill that President Bush will sign,” Higginbottom said.

They have a long way to go. He said the administration’s current demands “are totally unacceptable. Their recommendations may come with a lot of strings attached.”

Those may include buying commodities from foreign producers for the U.S. food aid program. “That’s understandable in a natural disaster, but typically these commodities should be from U.S. growers.”

Other recommendations include eliminating counter-cyclical payments along with other program cuts. He said the administration’s objection to what it considers a tax increase has been a sticking point. The proposal would have taxed companies with charters overseas but do business in the United States. “Those companies don’t pay taxes,” Higginbottom said, a practice he said seems unfair to U.S. companies that do pay taxes.

“Peterson and Rep. Bob Goodlatte (ranking member of the House Agriculture Committee) want to craft an agreement the president will not veto.” They’re working with Sen. Tom Harkin and Sen. Saxby Chambliss, chairman and ranking member of the Senate Agriculture Committee, he said.

Higginbottom said Peterson is optimistic that a bill can pass but is prepared to work with Republicans to craft one they can all agree on and that will garner enough support to override a veto.

“This is the most difficult farm bill to pass I’ve ever seen,” he said. Opposition from groups such as the American Farmland Trust and the Environmental Working Group has hampered negotiations. “Both groups provide challenges to the farm bill and they have a lot of lobbyists.”

He said farm groups seem to be “split a bit more than in some years,” as they advise legislators on program needs. “And current high prices seem to make some congressmen think (the farm bill) is not so important.”

Higginbottom said Peterson and Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi have agreed to a short extension of current legislation if necessary “to get a little more time. I don’t think they will do that for any length of time. That option would not give more money to nutrition programs or fruit and vegetables.”

Reverting to 1949 law would also be bad policy, he said. “It’s not a viable option. It would mean going back to some acreage controls and FAS could not administer that. Also, nutrition programs would not get money.”

He said the “stalemate has to be broken.”

The latest challenge is with the budget committee. They want jurisdiction over how the funds are spent.” The agriculture committee, he said, will not go along with that proposal.


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