Saturday, April 19, 2008

Once Again... the Farm Bill

Still the Farm Bill limps along, one short extension at a time, while lawmakers try desperately in conference to hammer out something which will satisfy the House and Senate Agriculture Committees, House leadership, the House Ways and Means Committee, the Senate Finance Committee, and the obstructionist White House. Among other people.

House conferees are here.
Senate conferees here.

The latest 1-week extension has been signed with a great show of reluctance by President Bush, giving the Conference Committee until next Friday, April 25, to come up with a workable bill. (If that successfully comes to fruition, an additional 2-week or so extension will be arranged in order to get the bill passed through the House and the Senate and-- hopefully-- signed by the President.)

If funding for the Farm Bill were unlimited, few sticking points would remain, but pay-as-you-go rules demand a bill whose funding sources are carefully delineated. This means there are two major areas of conflict: 1) with a limited budget, the powerful players are struggling over whose pet program(s) will see short shrift, and 2) even when the congressional players are in agreement about finding additional funding for a program, the Bush White House usually takes issue with the proposed offsets and threatens a veto of the entire bill.

I don’t use the word “obstructionist” lightly: rather than standing on some particular principle, the White House seems determined to keep throwing wrenches in the works of the Farm Bill.

Negotiations are in disarray as lawmakers from the House and Senate are squabbling over how to pay for the legislation. House and Senate negotiators have suggested a number of different ways to come up with an extra $10 billion needed for the bill, including some ideas the White House has backed previously. But administration officials have rejected most of their ideas, saying they would rather use the money for other priorities.

As for the programs at issue in the Conference Committee, controversy is focusing on a priority of my own Sen. Max Baucus (D-MT). Baucus, who chairs the Senate Finance Committee as well as sitting on the Agriculture Committee, has had tremendous power in negotiations so far. Sen. Baucus insists on the inclusion of a $4-billion disaster relief program for farmers (in Montana, for instance, “disaster” might come in the form of drought), a price tag at which the House has balked. (The Environmental Working Group points out that “[b]ased on their historical share of ad hoc disaster spending, of the twenty states represented on the Senate Finance Committee, just four stand to gain over half (55 percent) of the committee’s allocation of disaster aid expenditures under a permanent fund: North Dakota, Kansas, Iowa and Montana.”) The House is also reluctant to come up with offsets for the Senate-proposed $2.5-billion bundle of agriculture-related tax cuts championed by Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-IA). (Speaker Pelosi, in particular, feels strongly that – even should an additional $2.5 billion be located—such funds would be better used for beefing up nutrition and food stamp programs.)


At a farm bill meeting in Rangel's office Thursday, shouting could be heard behind closed doors. Several senators, including Baucus, left angrily.

"Let's just say it wasn't good," Sen. Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga., said afterward.

Reuters cites Tom Harkin on the set of possible outcomes:

If there is no breakthrough, said Senate Agriculture Committee chairman Tom Harkin, he will order votes on Tuesday to settle the matter. Harkin is in charge of the talks.

"We'll see if people really want to bring the farm bill down to have a tax package," said Harkin, Iowa Democrat. "At some point, it has to end."

By the end of next week, Harkin told reporters, the farm bill will be wrapped up or there will be a decision to either extend the 2002 farm law or to let the farm program revert to 1949 law, with land controls and high grain subsidy rates.

As an aside, the entire amount of the disputed funding—disaster relief plus tax cuts-- is worth about the cost of a week and a half in Iraq.


count said...

I just listened to the podcast of the April 11 episode of Bill Moyers Journal, about hunger in America and the farm bill.


Link to the Journal archive page:

Link to the audio podcast at iTunes:

count said...

That didn't work, did it? Let's try this:

iTunes podcast link

Bill Moyers Journal archive

thirdinstar said...

Thank you, count--

I did go and watch it, and the portion on the Livestock Compensation Program is certainly a bit absurd. I have mixed feelings, because I'm suspicious of anything that conveys that greedy, corrupt farmers are mainly to blame for our warped agricultural policy and food system. At the same time, the details of administration do seem wildly inefficient and illogical.