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Strong positions provoke sharp words on farm bill

“Like two warring camps.” That’s how one observer described relations between Congress and the administration as the Senate began its debate on the 2007 Food and Energy Security Act.

At a time when farmers need cool heads in Washington, the two institutions seemed more interested in trading barbs than solving problems. Take the USDA press conference the day before the Senate started its debate on the farm bill (Nov. 5).

Acting Agriculture Secretary Chuck Conner said the bill made a mockery of the budget process, and that was just the beginning of his criticisms, which were echoed in the Statement of Administration Policy issued by the White House later that day.

Kent Conrad, the senior Democrat on the Senate Agriculture Committee, shot back at Conner, calling the Statement of Administration Policy numbers “total fiction.”

Conrad ripped Conner for his comments about budget gimmicks and new taxes. “We balance our farm bill over five and 10 years, which we have to do,” said Conrad. “To stay within the budget, we had to sunset certain things — $12 billion of sunsets were used because we don’t have the money to extend some programs beyond five years.

“The SAP criticized those sunsets but I would say to them that they never disclosed how they would pay for the administration’s farm bill, which the Congressional Budget Office says will actually cost $1.4 billion more than the Senate farm bill.”

Conner’s oft-repeated comments about farm payments to “Park Avenue millionaires” drew a strong rebuttal from the House Agriculture Committee, which said the person who could do the most to stop those was, well, Conner.

“As the farm bill debate began this year,” it said, “reformers thought they found an unlikely ally in the Bush administration, which has argued forcefully against the farm safety net because it allowed big city millionaires to collect farm payments.

“What reformers don’t know is the administration has failed to use the authority it already has to end those payments and has ignored recommendations to change weak regulations that allow this to continue.”

Congress passed legislation in 1987 to prohibit farm program payments to individuals and entities not “actively engaged in farming. Since then, USDA has written and defended weak standards for determining if someone is actively engaged, a finding confirmed by the Commission on the Application of Payment Limitations for Agriculture.”

Some in Congress are concerned the administration may sacrifice the U.S. cotton program to complete the Doha Round WTO negotiations. More than one senator referred to the refusal of other countries to expand access to their agricultural markets.

Sen. Blanche Lincoln, D-Ark., may have summed up much of the sentiment in her speech on the first day of debate. “Those who choose to misrepresent the facts break down the process from what is real. My hope is that we will continue this conversation, and that those who choose to misrepresent the facts can be countered or at least corrected.”


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