Saturday, February 16, 2008

Talks on Farm Bill are at 'make-or-break stage'

Negotiations on the Farm Bill "teetered at a make-or-break stage" as Congress came home for the Presidents' Day week recess, reports David Rogers of "House Democrats and Republicans joined forces to press the Senate to scale back its demands or risk a historic disruption of the current commodity programs next month."

The Agriculture Department called the plan brokered by Agriculture Committee Chairman Collin Peterson, D-Minn., "great work." But Rogers reports that "a top farm-state Senate Republican" said it should be "thrown in the trash barrel." Rogers didn't name the senator, but it could well have been Charles Grassley of Iowa, who said in an interview on WHO's "The Big Show" with Ken Root and Mark Pearson that the House plan was "ridiculous" and "couldn't get 15 votes" in the Senate. Dien Judge writes in the Iowa Independent that "Grassley, known as a jovial and affable fellow, was audibly agitated."

Judge also notes that "A wide variety of agriculture organizations, from the conservative American Farm Bureau Federation to the progressive National Farmers Union, have come together to criticize the House proposal. A total of 42 organizations joined together to sign a letter Thursday to House and Senate agriculture leaders in a call to restore cuts to commodity programs."

Rogers, a veteran Washington reporter, writes that "House and Senate divisions are mirrored by splits in the Bush administration itself, and the impasse is a growing embarrassment for all parties going into the fall elections. 'We have to get this damn thing done,' said Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., one of the few real farmers in Congress."

Rogers's analysis is an excellent guide to the politics of the bill. For the substance, we turn to Mike Smith of the Council of State Governments: He reports that most of the savings in the House version "would come from changes made to commodity programs; specifically, the proposal would eliminate direct payments to farmers during the ninth year (2016) of the bill’s 10-year projection. According to the proposal, this move alone would reduce spending levels by approximately $5.2 billion."

Smith says the House plan also includes "a hard cap on farm payments by making those farmers whose adjusted gross income is more than $900,000 ineligible to receive farm program payments. Those individuals earning less than two-thirds of their AGI from farm-related income would be ineligible to receive farm payments if their AGI is greater than $500,000 for 2009, $450,000 for 2010, $400,000 for 2011, $350,000 for 2012, and $300,000 for 2013 and every year thereafter. The proposal would also provide a combined $9 billion over 10 years for nutrition programs, down from the $11 billion provided in the House-passed farm bill.

Citing Sara Wyant's Agri-Pulse newsletter, Smith reports that senators have a counter-offer that "calls for $9.5 billion above the farm bill baseline, rather than Peterson’s $6 billion offer," but he also notes dissension among senators such as Tom Harkin, D-Iowa. "We're driving a pretty hard bargain over here on the Senate side," Harkin told Greg Hitt of The Wall Street Journal. "We have a lot of votes." (Read more)

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