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Let policy drive the budget, senator says

To succeed in getting farmers what they want in the next farm bill, commodity groups need to provide Congress with specific policy change requests, not monetary demands. That was the message Sen. Pat Roberts of Kansas delivered Feb. 26 to attendees of the 2001 Commodity Classic in San Antonio.

A self-described optimist, Roberts was the featured speaker at the recent annual joint meeting of the National Corn Growers Association and the American Soybean Association. Despite his positive outlook on the future of agriculture, Roberts says he has been “distressed and somewhat concerned” about the recent actions of some of the commodity groups and organizations.

Agricultural organizations, Roberts says, have a history of being considered some of the most fiscally conservative groups represented in the nation's capital. But Congress' opinion of some of these groups is changing. “There seems to be a growing sense of entitlement among some of the commodity organizations,” he says.

“I urge you to make recommendations that are budget-responsible, not quick-fix spending packages,” Roberts says. “Figure out the policy, and let the policy run the budget.”

Stressing the importance of commodity groups making their farm bill requests along policy lines, Roberts says that while he can justify any additional funding required for policy changes, he cannot justify to his fellow legislators the need to increase expenditures or subsidies that do not have a basis in policy.

“We cannot afford strife and disagreement among agricultural commodity groups in Washington, D.C., and out in the country. The job ahead is not who can outbid the next fellow,” Roberts says. “We've got to saddle up. This isn't going to be an easy ride.”

Roberts, who has participated in the passage of six farm bills, says he has seen and heard every farm bill possible. “Knowing that no farm bill is perfect, we need to discuss what's working and what's not,” he says. “The answers are not easy ones. Remember, the 1995 farm bill turned out to be the 1996 farm bill.”

In addition, Roberts says it is important for growers to understand what the next farm bill cannot do. “It cannot control three years of unprecedented good weather and bumper crops on a worldwide basis. It cannot handle the world economic depression that involves some of our closest export markets. And, it cannot control currency exchange rates.”

“We've got to saddle up. This isn't going to be an easy ride.”

With the current farm legislation expiring in about 18 months, agriculture is coming to a true crossroads, according to Roberts. What type of farm bill successfully winds its way through the House and Senate depends on a united agriculture working with Congress to make meaningful policy changes that will most benefit farmers.

Among the topics on the table for the upcoming farm bill debate are loan rates, crop insurance, production controls and AMTA payments.

During his presentation at the Commodity Classic, Roberts raised more questions about the upcoming farm bill debates than he answered. While he says he believes Congress needs to continue to leave planting decisions to growers, he questioned some of the other tenets of both the current legislation and proposed changes to the farm program.

“Should we go back to production controls? And, if we were to implement production controls, are farmers willing to wait and wait and wait until USDA announces its set-aside rules each year?” he asks. “What if we put into place a counter-cyclical farm program? Wouldn't that allow us to avoid the problems of the past few years?”

“The real question is, Can we make a counter-cyclical program work? Do we base payments off a producer's income? What if we have a regional weather disaster that wipes out the crop in one area, but doesn't trigger a nationwide crop reduction high enough to authorize payments to farmers? What then?”

“Do we re-figure AMTA payments? These payments may be out of date in some instances, but what are the other options? If you don't like the current system, what's in second place?”

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