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House leaders urge Senate to act quickly

Citing the “complete failure” of the Freedom to Farm Act and the necessity to enact new legislation in time for the 2002 crop season, Reps. Charlie Stenholm (D) and Larry Combest, (R) of Texas urged the Senate to move quickly to pass a farm bill and get it into conference before the Christmas break.

Combest, Chairman of the House Agricultural Committee, and Stenholm, ranking member, addressed the Texas Commodity Symposium by telephone recently in Amarillo. Both were prevented from attending in person because of a busy legislative agenda.

Stenholm and Combest each pointed to the bi-partisan support they garnered from the House for their bill, which was passed more than a month before the Senate decided to take up the issue.

“We had 291 votes for the bill in the House,” Combest said. “And we were able to defeat some crippling amendments. This legislation has broad-based support.”

“It's truly a bi-partisan bill,” Stenholm said. ‘If the Senate leadership allows that body to do what Larry has done in the House, they can accomplish a lot.”

Stenholm said early proposals from the Senate fell far short of providing what he and Combest believe to be in the best interests of U.S. agriculture.

“Early proposals would have increased Conservation Reserve Program acreage to more than 40 million,” Stenholm said. “And the numbers simply did not add up. We have to develop a bill that will pass screening from the Congressional Budget Office.”

Combest said Senate debate appears to be following party lines. “They can't do a farm bill on a partisan basis,” he said. “Right now, we're not sure what will happen. If the debate lingers past Dec. 31, he said, farmers would be hurt. “If it's not passed this year, we can't implement it for the 2002 crop, and we will be one more year under the current program, through which we've spent a lot of money for the past few years, and will be in a position to do so again if we don't pass a new law.

“Also, farmers need to know as soon as possible. They can't plan their next crops with their bankers without knowing what the farm program will be.”

Stenholm and Combest both believe the current funding level, $73.5 billion, will drop significantly if the Senate delays passage until 2002. They also argue that if the Senate delays until January it will have no incentive to work on farm legislation until much later in the year.

Combest said he was not pleased with the Senate's early bills and would “not cave in to that version just to get a bill passed.”

But he and Stenholm said as time passes the Senate version begins to become more and more like the House bill.

“If that continues, the legislation will be easier to conference,” Combest said. “And I am committed to stay here as long as it takes to pass this legislation this year.”

Points of contention between various Senate versions and the House bill include a large dairy expenditure in the Senate and more conservation with less commodity support. The Senate prefers a five-year law while the House proposes 10 years.

Stenholm said the House would have liked to include a mechanism to allow producers to adjust yields upward for payments. “If we had done that, the cost of the program would have gone up,” he said.

“Also, we can't do anything in this legislation about the cost of regulations,” Combest said. “That's not under our jurisdiction, but we are concerned about burdensome regulations.”

Stenholm also defended the House bill as adhering to World Trade Organization requirements. “The administration has criticized our bill for being illegal within the WTO,” he said, “but that's not so. It gives us a strong position to negotiate trade.”

Stenholm said he and Combest “stand shoulder to shoulder with the American farmer as they try to negotiate in the world markets.”

Combest said he felt confident that “if the House and Senate pass a good farm bill, the President will sign it.

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