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House, farm groups seek override votes

Farm bill negotiators and major farm organizations have begun an intense effort to muster the 290 House votes needed to override a promised veto of the 2008 Food, Conservation and Energy Act conference report.

Shortly after House and Senate Agriculture, Ways and Means and Finance Committee leaders outlined the major features of the compromise legislation at a news conference Thursday afternoon, they and farm groups began lobbying members of Congress to support it.

Any lingering doubts President Bush would veto the long-awaited 2008 farm bill were swept away when Agriculture Secretary Ed Schafer issued a statement saying the president intended to do just that.

Schafer’s statement put the president on a collision course with members of his own party. The president has said for weeks he would veto any bill that did not meet his demands for payment limit reforms and decreased farm spending.

“I am eager to get the farm bill on the House floor for a vote next week and on the president’s desk,” said Rep. Mike Conaway, R-Texas, noting the agriculture community had been waiting too long. “In the event President Bush vetoes this legislation, I will vote to override the veto.”

The Agriculture Committee chairmen and ranking members who negotiated the 11th-hour farm bill compromise agreement seemed as much relieved as they were pleased they had moved the package a step closer to becoming law.

“I am a happy man,” said Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee and of the farm bill conference committee. “One of the members of the staff likened writing a farm bill to passing a kidney stone. I’ve never had one, but I think I know what he means.”

Harkin and Rep. Collin Peterson, D-Minn., chairman of the House Agriculture Committee, referred frequently to the fact nearly three-fourths of the spending in the 2008 farm bill will go for nutrition programs.

“This is a strong, bipartisan farm bill that benefits every American from Cumming, Iowa, population 162, to New York City, population 8 million,” Harkin said. “The bill provides a strong safety net, so it’s good for farmers and producers. Consumers will like it because it will increase farmers’ markets and ensure a safe, dependable supply of high quality food.”

Harkin said the compromise agreement also provides significant reforms of farm support programs, including caps on the level of farm income and the adjusted gross income of participants in farm programs, direct attribution of payments to individuals and elimination of the three-entity rule, a favorite target of environmental groups.

But he and others returned several times to the increased funding for nutrition programs, including improving the diets of low income Americans and increasing the access of school children to fresh fruits and vegetables

“At a time of economic downturn and rapidly rising prices for food staples, millions of low income Americans have joined the ranks of the hungry and the food insecure,” said Harkin. “For that reason, all of the new money we were able to secure for this new farm bill went into the nutrition title, bringing the new investment in nutrition to $10.4 billion.”

“This shouldn’t be called the farm bill,” said Sen. Kent Conrad, D-N.D., the Senate Budget Committee chairman and ag committee member given credit for writing much of the new law. “It really is much more than that — it’s the food bill.”

Harkin said the agreement goes “more than half way” to meet the objections posed by administration officials. “I hope the president will sign it,” noting the Senate passed its farm bill 79-14 or with 13 more votes than needed to override.

Peterson implored the news media to do a better job of explaining the farm bill to consumers who have been inundated with stories about “big payments to wealthy farmers.”

“Some people think the entire $300 billion in this bill goes to farmers,” he noted. “The truth is $36 billion to $40 billion is for farmers over 10 years and the rest for nutrition programs and for conservation and energy programs. They also need to know we saved $20 billion with the last farm bill.”

Groups such as the American Agriculture Movement were already urging farmers to contact members of Congress and urge them to vote for the bill before the final details began to emerge. Others began issuing “action alerts” shortly after the conference committee news briefing.

“While we are anxious to learn more about the details,” said National Cotton Council Chairman Larry McClendon, “we believe enactment of new legislation is a far more desirable outcome than the uncertainty of a short-term extension. Therefore, we urge Congress to act promptly to approve the legislation and urge the president to sign it.”

Besides increase funding for nutrition programs, the Food, Conservation and Energy Act also:

• Gives producers the option of enrolling in a new state-level Average Crop Revenue Election or ACRE program. The bill reduces direct payments for those farmers by 20 percent and loan rates by 30 percent and provides a counter-cyclical payment at 90 percent of the national average selling price.

• Reduces the adjusted gross income limit for farm program payments to farmers from $2.5 million to $750,000 and to non-farmers to $500,000. The provision does not give farmers a total limit of $1.25 million as some have written.

• Rebalances rates for the counter-cyclical and non-recourse marketing loan program; reforms the cotton marketing loan program and provides an assistance program for the textile industry; and maintains fruit and vegetable planting restrictions.

• Places a new AGI limit of $1 million on conservation payments for non-farmers. It contains no limits for farmers who derive two-thirds of their income from farming.

• Provides $4.4 billion in new funding for the Environmental Quality Incentives Program and the newly named Conservation Stewardship Program over the next 10 years. With this level of support, the Conservation Stewardship Program will enroll nearly 13 million acres each year.

• Dramatically increases the agricultural sector’s capacity to produce clean, renewable energy, including providing more than $1 billion to expand the supply of biofuels made from biomass and crop byproducts other than grain. The bill also provides new support to farmers who grow energy crops, and to entrepreneurs who build refineries to convert biomass into fuel.”

• Provides two new titles in the farm bill — livestock and specialty crops. The legislation provides $1 billion for specialty crops, investing more in the promotion of specialty crops than any previous bill.

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