If President Bush was looking for an issue that would create a bi-partisan mood in the U.S. Congress, he found it. Democrats and Republicans alike have united to criticize proposed cuts in the agricultural budget.

Commodity associations also decry proposed reductions as unfair to both agriculture and rural America.

Representative Randy Neugebauer, R- Texas, of the 19th District and a member of the House Agriculture Committee, expresses support for the president's overall efforts to begin the process of balancing the budget but stops short of supporting the deep cuts proposed for the farm program.

He says the president's request is a starting point. “Much work remains to be done. Congress, and specifically the Agriculture Committee, has the responsibility of considering that request and then setting budget and agriculture policy. This is just the beginning of a long process that will include much debate along the way,” he says.

“I am concerned with how our farm programs are treated in his request. As Congress considers next year's budget priorities, it is important that we take a look at all USDA spending, not just the farm support programs.”

He says the country enjoys the safest and most affordable food supply in the world, a fact that should not be taken for granted and is no accident. “Rather, it is the result of hard work in the field and sound agriculture policy from Washington.”

Oklahoma's Third District Congressman Frank Lucas also serves on the House Agriculture Committee and criticized the proposal that would cut agriculture spending next year by as much as 10 percent.

“I'm not pleased with the spending levels for agriculture in the president's budget,” Lucas, also a Republican, says. “This is only the starting point of the budget debate, and as Congress does every year, we will continue this debate in the months to come.

“What we don't know yet are the details of how the president's budget would be implemented, and how the agriculture budget reductions will affect the average agriculture producer.

“I will emphasize to the president just how important these agriculture programs are to rural Oklahoma and rural America.”

Congressman Henry Cuellar, a Texas Democrat serving on the House Agriculture Committee, is not pleased with the proposed cuts.

“In 2002, we cut the annual ceiling on payments from $460,000 to $360,000,” Cuellar says. “The budget proposal would bring us from $360,000 to $250,000. That totals a 40 percent cut in four years. That is a 10 percent cut a year. Now, I ask you: ‘Where does that leave us in 10 years?’

“The subsidies being threatened are, in many cases, the only things that keep farms viable. They exist to pull us through our nation's fluctuating food supply and crop forecasts. Without these subsidies we lose crucial producers, especially our family farmers. When I look at any proposal I ask myself one question: ‘Does this make America's families stronger?’

“The agricultural component of the budget proposal fails that test.”

Steve Verett, executive vice president of the Plains Cotton Growers Inc., says the budget proposal is not set in stone and a lot of effort remains before anything is final. “The president's budget requests are a long way from becoming incorporated into appropriation bills for fiscal year 2006,” he says. “It's the job of Congress to write our laws, and Congress is still writing the budget bills for fiscal year 2005.”

Ted Higginbottom, president of Western Peanut Growers Association, says the presidents' proposed budget concerning agriculture is bad news for the nation's farmers, “especially the ones in West Texas. In West Texas we have a lot of large acreage farmers because economics dictate it. Cutting out the three entity rule will severely cripple a lot of farmers and put some out of business,” he says.

“Lowering the payment limit to $250,000 and doing away with generic certificates will certainly put more farmers out of business because they would not be able to take advantage of an above average crop as many cotton producers had this year. Farmers must be able to play catch up once in a while after suffering through poor crop years.

“Cutting funding so severely puts one more nail in the U.S. farmers' coffin. If the program does not have adequate funds to operate and provide a safety net to the farmers more will be forced out of agriculture.”

Shelly Nutt, executive director of the Texas Peanut Producers Board, says the payment limit cap could hurt Texas peanut farmers.

“Texas farmers produce on large farms, thus the necessity of the higher payment limit and for the three entity rule,” she says.

She says the makeup of the House Agriculture Committee will prove beneficial. “First of all, the bonus is that the chairman of the Senate Ag Committee is Saxby Chamblis of Georgia and he'll be paying particular attention to the peanut program and will want to take care of his constituent growers.

“Another bonus is that (the peanut industry), and Texas especially, has a strong lobbying effort through the Western Peanut Growers Association. WPGA, I'm sure, is already on top of this and will be writing letters and making trips to D.C. to fight for the best interests of Texas' peanut farmers.”

The National Farmers Union takes a hard line.

“I think it is wrong for President Bush to try to balance the budget on the backs of rural Americans,” says NFU President Dave Frederickson. “Agricultural programs are not the cause of the record federal deficit and, therefore, should not be the solution.”

Frederickson says U.S. farm programs were written by Congress and signed into law by President Bush in 2002 with the intention that farmers and ranchers would have an adequate safety net through 2007. During the first three years of the new farm bill, he noted, farm program spending has totaled $15 billion less than originally projected.

“If all federal program spending would have been as fiscally responsible as agricultural spending, we would not be facing the highest federal budget deficit in our nation's history,” Frederickson said.

The National Farmers Union and a coalition of 117 other groups sent a letter to Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns opposing cuts that would undermine nutrition, conservation, crop insurance and farm programs.

National Cotton Council Chairman Woods Eastland agrees that the proposal has far to go before becoming law. “This budget outline is just the first step in a long, important budget process,” Eastland says. “Congress will be evaluating these proposals and other options as it seeks ways to trim the federal deficit. This debate will be about prospective, not retrospective, program changes, and it is important that Congress evaluate its options within the context of our need to remain competitive in world markets.”

The Council urges Congress to consider that the nation's growers are already making planting decisions for 2005. Adding uncertainty to their eligibility for program support, Eastland says, could cause many producers to make decisions based on unclear, ill-defined prospective changes in federal legislation, rather than market signals.

e-mail: rsmith@primediabusiness.com