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Johanns: USDA writing its own farm bill language

Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns appears to be poised to break with tradition by becoming the first secretary in recent memory to submit a farm bill to Congress. Whether the draft bill gets more than a cursory review remains to be seen, however.

Previous administrations have sent farm bill proposals — former Secretary Anne Veneman, Johanns’ predecessor, sent a book to the House and Senate Agriculture Committees. But Johanns could be the first in some time to offer actual legislative language when those bodies start writing the new law in May.

Speaking at a farm bill conference held by Informa Economics in Washington, Johanns said he was responding to requests he received during some of the congressional briefings he’s given on USDA’s farm bill proposals.

“Not to throw names out, but at many of those we’ve been asked if we had an interest in offering legislative language,” Johanns said. “It has prompted us to work on legislative language, and that’s what I wanted to share with you today. I think it’s a very positive and important step, and we literally are working title by title to finalize our proposals.”

He said the administration’s proposed language on three or four of the farm bill titles could be available within two weeks.

The chairmen of the House and Senate ag committees did not seem to be overjoyed at the prospects of legislation from USDA, although Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, said he would welcome the administration’s input.

“I see nothing wrong with it,” he said in a speech to the North American Agricultural Journalists Association. “I welcome it. I don’t know that I’ll agree with all of it, but if somebody wants to do the work for me, I’m all for it. My staff is busy enough.”

Rep. Collin Peterson, the House ag committee chairman, said he wasn’t aware of anyone requesting farm bill language from USDA. “No one on the (ag) committee has shown much interest in Secretary Johanns’ farm bill that I’m aware of,” he said. “And no one has expressed interest in introducing it.”

Until the 1980s, it was not uncommon for USDA to take out a farm bill position, according to veteran farm bill observers.

“This seemed to stop during the Reagan administration, and this marks the first time that the USDA has actively re-entered directly into the policy setting position,” said Abner Womack, director of the Food and Agricultural Policy Research Institute at the University of Missouri-Columbia.

“Normally they played the same role as FAPRI by providing analytics on likely outcomes of different options under consideration by the ag committees. But, like us, they never took a position on a particular option under consideration.”

Other observers said they believe Bob Bergland, agriculture secretary in the Carter administration and a former congressman from Minnesota, may have been the last head of USDA to submit a farm bill.

In his speech to the Informa Economics group, Johanns said he has been “enormously encouraged” by the response he and other USDA officials have received to its farm bill proposals, which were developed following a series of farm bill forums in 2005.

“In the last two months since our rollout, I testified three times before congressional committees,” he said. “Chuck Conner, our deputy at the USDA, along with senior officials at the Department had testified six more times. That’s a far cry from anyone saying dead on arrival.”

Johanns, Conner and other staff members have also delivered 22 informal briefings on the administration proposals to members of Congress and their staffs, according to the secretary.

“This is the kind of thing you’re not going to read about in your favorite ag publication,” he noted. “But there’s enough interest where we keep getting invited back over and over again to talk to staff or members on the Hill.”

Noting the conference title (2007 Farm Bill: Policy Evolution or Revolution?), Johanns said he felt the former might be the more appropriate description because he and his staff have been working on the new farm bill for more than two years.

During a question-and-answer session following his speech, he went through what has become a litany on the number of farm bill forums (52) conducted by USDA and him personally (21). He said he was pleasantly surprised at the audiences the forums attracted, ranging to as high as 1,600 persons in some locations.

Following the forums, USDA published a series of summaries dealing with different topics covered in those venues. The papers became the basis for USDA’s farm bill proposals, which Johanns announced on Jan. 31.

“I think in the end our proposals just result in a better farm bill, a farm bill that’s going to operate better for farmers while putting money into focused areas,” he said. “We heard out there that farmers and stakeholders wanted us to invest.

“Because of new commitments like these, our farm bill proposals would actually deliver about $5 billion more in supporting producers than they would have received if the 2002 farm bill were simply reauthorized.”

That same package of proposals will also save $10 billion in terms of spending in the 2002 law versus spending in USDA’s version of the post-2007 farm programs. The savings would fit with the president’s plan to balance the budget and eliminate the deficit by 2012, he said.

While some members have criticized Johanns’ accounting, the secretary took a swipe at the reserve funds created to increase the farm spending baselines in both the House and Senate budget resolutions. The House reserve fund is set at $20 billion and the Senate’s at $15 billion.

“Now, reserve funds have been used to a limited extent in the past, but in most cases they were funds that were actually set aside,” he said. “This year nearly 50 reserve funds have been created by House and Senate budget resolutions, including funds for veterans health care, middle income tax relief and a host of other important needs.”

Johanns said the administration farm bill will also provide increased funding for renewable energy, conservation specialty crops, market access and research programs. “We do so in a manner that fits within the plan to balance the budget within five years.”

But Johanns’ plans for those areas may hit tough sledding when his legislative language hits the Senate Agriculture Committee. Harkin has been critical of both the administration’s farm bill and budget provisions.

“I was disappointed that the proposal fails to remedy the budget damage to the Conservation Security Program since the 2002 farm bill,” he said, following Johanns’ announcement of the proposals. “It does not restore CSP to a nationwide program so every producer at least has an opportunity to apply.

“On energy, the proposal is not enough to meet the ambitious goals the president laid out in his State of the Union speech for increasing production of alternative and renewable fuels. While I support the rhetoric, I do not see adequate resources dedicated to backing it up.”

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