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USDA urges broader look at legislation

Three months after it promised to outline its views on a new farm bill, the Bush administration finally issued a position paper just hours before the House of Representatives began debate on and then passed the Food Security Act of 2001 Oct. 5.

The eleventh-hour move angered some Republican lawmakers who complained that the administration had waited until the last minute to criticize legislation that had been under development for nearly two years. House members shrugged off the advice and passed the bill 291 to 120.

But the administration position paper, late as it may have been, presages just how difficult it may be for House leaders to translate their Farm Security Act into a 10-year farm bill that can shore up the financially troubled U.S. farm sector.

“This administration is committed to continuing our work with the Congress to address the important issues facing agriculture and our farmers,” said Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman in a statement issued with the position paper. “We support forward-looking legislation that will bring long-term prosperity for our nation's farmers and ranchers.

“We urge the House of Representatives to defer action on H.R. 2646 and craft a policy that better strengthens rural America, protects the environment, invests in core infrastructure programs that protect food and agriculture, and aggressively expands markets for our producers.”

Repeats theme

Veneman, a California native, repeated the theme she has been sounding since the release of a document outlining USDA farm policy principles in late September: that the enormous change that has taken place in agriculture requires a “broader” approach to farm legislation.

“The concern with H.R. 2646 is that it does not adequately reflect many of these changes and new opportunities,” she said. “Particularly, it does not help farmers most in need, encourages overproduction while prices are low, jeopardizes U.S. markets abroad which would hurt our producers, and boosts federal spending by $70 billion over the next 10 years at a time of budget uncertainty.”

In a press conference following House passage of the Farm Security Act, Veneman defended the administration against charges it had been late in joining in the farm bill debate.

“Our statement of farm policy principles was issued a full year before the expiration of the current farm bill (the seven-year Federal Agricultural Improvement and Reform Act of 1996),” she said, noting that that means Congress has the same period of time to write a new bill.

“We have one year to work together in a bipartisan manner to develop future farm policies before the current farm bill expires. We can do so in a thoughtful and deliberative manner, just as was done this summer in providing an additional $5.5 billion in assistance to farmers.

Some congressional observers thought the administration would stay out of the farm bill debate rather than jeopardize congressional support for the new Trade Promotion Authority President Bush has been seeking.

But the administration chose to issue a Statement of Administrative Policy (SAP) through Office of Management and Budget (OMB). The statement argued “consideration of large new financial commitments that do not require immediate action are not timely. As drafted, H.R. 2646 misses the opportunity to modernize the nation's farm programs through market-oriented tools, innovative environmental programs, including extending benefits to working lands, and aid programs that are consistent with our trade agenda.”

Broader appraisal

In her press conference, the secretary said “We applaud the hard work of the House of Representatives to get the farm bill to this point, but we think we need to look at a broader array of activities than commodity programs and reach the broadest number of farmers possible.”

Farm organizations also applauded the work of Reps. Larry Combest and Charles Stenholm, the chairman and ranking minority member of the House Agriculture Committee, for their efforts in winning passage of the Farm Security Act, but said they were troubled by the administration's opposition.

“The administration's disappointing last-minute criticism of the House bill, including comments about the availability of funds for agriculture programs, is another indication that we have much more work to do to promote prompt enactment of new farm policy,” said James Echols, chairman of the National Cotton Council.

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