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Senate panel's ag bill short on details

The chairman and ranking minority member of the Senate Agriculture Committee have released a set of principles for a new farm bill that, among other things, would direct more benefits to farmers who are “actively involved in farming and ranching.”

The statement seemed to take aim at the farm bill passed by the House of Representatives. That bill, the Farm Security Act of 2001, would provide a continuation of current programs that some argue benefit absentee landowners more than actual producers.

Although the senators' statement of principles was released before the House vote on Oct. 5, the farm bill voted out by the House differed little from the bill drafted by the House Agriculture Committee in July.

Unlike the concept paper released by the House Ag Committee before its vote in July, the Senate Ag Committee set of principles released by Sens. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, its chairman and Richard Lugar, R-Ind., the ranking minority member, was short on details.

“When we began the process of crafting a new farm bill we decided that the policy needed to be both a significant change from past policies and had to be a bipartisan approach,” Harkin said in a statement released with the principles.

“The new farm bill will set critical policies for America's farm families, rural communities and the entire nation. We must have a sound policy for a new generation of farmers in a new century of farming.”

Harkin said the Senate Ag Committee bill would include these objectives:

  • Improve income opportunities.

  • Promote conservation on agricultural and forest lands.

  • Foster economic growth, job creation and quality of life in rural communities.

  • Promote the development, production and use of farm-based renewable energy and industrial raw materials.

  • Strengthen the foundation of the united states food, agriculture and forestry sectors.

  • Improve assistance to fight hunger in the United States and abroad.

  • Expand trade opportunities for united states farmers and exporters

  • Improve the availability of credit to agricultural producers and rural communities

“There is widespread agreement that some new directions are needed in farm and rural policy,” said Harkin, who became the committee chairman after Vermont Sen. Jim Jeffords left the Republican Party to become an Independent in June.

“This agreement will help us measure specific policies and proposals as we write the farm bill. I am especially encouraged by the strong parallels between the objectives Senator Lugar and I have outlined and the report released by Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman and the administration last week.”

The 111-page report prepared by USDA also included a list of principles aimed at guiding policy development for trade, a farm safety net, system infrastructure, conservation and environment, rural communities, nutrition and food assistance and program delivery.

It said the government should rely on increased trade and improved market opportunities to pull the farm economy out of its current economic woes.

“I am also heartened by the statement of principles from the administration,” said Lugar in the statement. “This will help stimulate the development of a successful farm bill by this point next year when the current bill expires.”

Lugar's comments seemed to confirm signals sent out by Senate Ag Committee members and by Secretary Veneman that they do not believe a new farm bill would not be passed until 2002. (The current legislation, the Federal Agricultural Improvement and Reform Act of 1996, does not expire until Dec. 31, 2002.

Several farm-state congressmen had expressed doubts that further action on a new farm bill would be forthcoming in 2001 following the tragic events that occurred in Washington and New York on Sept. 11.

But House leaders announced they planned to take up the House Ag Committee farm bill in October, citing concerns about food and fiber production in the wartime setting that is expected to occur as the U.S. government retaliates against the terrorist actions.

In comments during a Senate Ag Committee hearing in which Veneman testified on Sept. 26, Sen. Lugar called such concerns unwarranted.

“I'm tired of everyone saying an army marches on its stomach to imply that we need a farm bill to feed our troops,” he noted. “We've got food coming out our ears.”

He also ridiculed the House plans to consider H.R. 2646, which he said “spends too much money on big grain and cotton farmers, undermines the American trade position and spends too much money in a time of war.”

That drew a response from Rep. Larry Combest, chairman of the House Agriculture Committee and author of the committee bill, who said he would move ahead with his bill despite the criticism from the Senate and the administration.

“If the Senate has the desire to be seen as slowing this process, then it is certainly possible they simply do not intend to act,” he said. “I do not intend for the House to neglect its duties to the American farmer.”

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