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Pitfalls of a farm bill extension

“Be careful what you ask for,” Chip Morgan says he tells those who question him about extending the current farm bill.

“I get a lot of comments about an extension, and it makes a lot of sense,” the Delta Council executive vice president said at the Mississippi Farm Bureau Federation’s summer rice commodity meeting at Cleveland, Miss.

“Unfortunately, inside the Washington Beltway, ‘extension’ doesn’t necessarily mean continuing what you currently have. Rather, it usually means extending it … with some changes. And those changes would most likely include reductions in targets, more conservation spending (and some way to pay for it), and payment limit reform, or it can’t get across the House and Senate floors.

“So really, an extension probably won’t be an extension in the context of our thinking.”

After the month-long recess starting Aug. 4, Congress will have only 21 scheduled working days, Morgan noted.

“They have an energy bill, 13 appropriations bills, a supplemental bill for the war in Iraq — with every day that passes, a farm bill gets farther out of reach.”

House Agriculture Committee Chairman Collin Peterson, D-Minn., has indicated plans for full committee markup on farm legislation this week, but, Morgan said, “I don’t think anyone, even those on his staff, knows what they’re going to look at. He hasn’t told any of the commodity groups what to expect.

“It’s a new way of doing business — kind of a moving target.”

While Morgan terms Peterson “our friend,” he said, “It’s just going to be difficult to get enough votes to get a farm bill out of committee. The pressure builds and people have to vote for things they don’t like to vote for.”

He says the House measure “probably will look something like the 2002 legislation, with some modifications that will allow them to get enough votes to get it out of committee. Some of those modifications will be favorable, we think; some may not be, including payment limitations.

“As far as we can tell, not that much attention is being focused on rice. Unless [Peterson] has to fit in a big conservation number, or a big number for fruits and vegetables, rice could probably escape in the House without any big reductions. The problem will be with payment limitations — if not properly crafted, there aren’t many farmers who wouldn’t be affected.

“It’s a very difficult situation for Mr. Peterson. I think he’s going to propose changes so he can get a bill out of committee, and then hope he can get Speaker Pelosi to protect it on the floor. If she doesn’t, I think we’ll have to face more unfriendly amendments on the floor.”

Morgan said “there’s nothing about rice coming out of the Senate that we know about. They’ve taken no formal action on a farm bill and have no ag committee meeting scheduled.”

He said “most of those I work with in Washington think with each passing day there’s a greater chance an extension of the current bill will be the answer.

“If so, it will be a challenging process for everyone to stay in contact with those in Washington, because things will be changing quickly, and we won’t have time to do analyses and evaluations. We’re going to have to be able to have answers and to be ready to say yes or no.”

With 13 separate appropriations bills needing action in the working time left for Congress, “they may get balled up into an omnibus bill,” Morgan said.

“That would be a wonderful place to put a farm bill of any kind, and may be the only way a farm bill will get voted on otherwise. When it becomes expedient procedurally [for an omnibus bill], that might be a good time to make farm bill extension a part of the legislation.

“If that happens, we’re going to have to be prepared to dig in and make sure we protect our interests.”


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