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Conrad, Johanns taking gloves off

The 2002 farm bill is not scheduled to expire until Sept. 30, 2007. But the debate over writing a new law is already starting to heat up and getting a little bit nasty.

Although USDA and the House Agriculture Committee have held forums and hearings, the House committee and the Senate Agriculture Committee aren't expected to begin writing the 2007 farm bill until next spring.

But that isn't stopping would-be players from getting some early licks in on such issues as disaster assistance legislation the Senate passed in an emergency supplemental appropriations bill.

In some ways, the disaster legislation is a microcosm of the farm bill debate. Democrats and some Republicans believe the federal government should help growers recover from droughts, floods, hurricanes, wildfires and other weather-related problems in 2005 and early this year.

Some Republicans and the Bush administration say the assistance isn't needed because net farm income has increased in the last two years. You could substitute marketing loans and counter-cyclical payments for disaster relief, and you could just as well have a debate on the farm bill.

House Democrats and a few Republicans have been trying to pass disaster aid since the smoke began to clear from hurricanes Katrina and Rita last summer. But the House leadership — with the backing of the administration — has blocked them.

Sen. Kent Conrad, D-N.D., venting some of the frustration disaster aid proponents have felt, lashed out at Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns, saying that if Johanns didn't understand disaster aid was needed beyond the Gulf Coast he shouldn't be secretary. (USDA did not respond to a request for comment by Johanns.)

Johanns has been getting in a few licks of his own. Although he said it shouldn't be taken as a policy statement, USDA released the first in a series of theme papers analyzing issues that emerged from the 52 Farm Bill Forums the department conducted last year.

In a speech to fruit and vegetable growers in Chicago, Johanns said the first paper — on risk management — simply lays out the facts to “inform and educate the public.” But the paper is long on “facts” and short on analysis of such claims that commodity program costs have almost doubled since fiscal year 2004.

The paper spells out three alternatives to current policy: One would “Use the existing structure of farm programs but make them more WTO consistent, reduce their effects on resource use and farm structure and better target them to producers in greatest need of assistance.”

That's basically what Johanns said last year when responding to farmers who favored keeping the current farm bill.

The other alternatives: “Replace marketing assistance loans and counter-cyclical payments with a program based on revenue shortfalls,” and “Phase out marketing assistance loans, direct and counter-cyclical payments and use savings to expand crop insurance coverage, fund farm savings accounts or expand conservation, rural development or other programs.”

That reads like USDA is trying to stack the deck. Pedaling

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