Sen. Kent Conrad says farmers have been down the road the Bush administration's farm bill proposals would take them before, and they probably don't want to go there again.
Calling the administration proposals, “the good, the bad and the ugly,” Conrad said they would “gut those advances we have made with the current farm bill,” including the 2002 law's counter-cyclical payments, which he said are good for both farmers and taxpayers.
“The president's policies would put us right back where we were in the late 1990s, when American agriculture was failing,” said Conrad, who now serves as chairman of the Senate Budget Committee following the Democrats victory in the November elections.
“And it completely disregards the five-to-one spending advantage in support that European farmers have over American farmers,” the North Dakota Democrat noted. “We have to do better.”
Conrad said the good part of the president's plan was his proposal to expand research and development of bio-based, renewable fuels, such as cellulosic ethanol, by $1.6 billion. “That's good, but we should do much more,” he said.
The bad? “While the president proposes to increase the cost of the farm bill, the proposals do not adequately address the challenges before U.S. agriculture. For example, it does not address the need for a permanent disaster aid title, but it would increase premiums for crop insurance.”
The ugly? “The president proposes to undermine the current farm bill, which has built an affordable and efficient safety net that is good for farmers as well as taxpayers. He would dismantle the counter-cyclical program and the marketing loan program, and he would make basic crop insurance more expensive for producers.”
As Budget Committee chairman, Conrad will play a major role in determining how much money will be available for the next farm bill. The Congressional Budget Office baseline, announced in late January, would reduce funding for the farm bill's commodity title by 26 percent.
Other reaction to the farm bill was less caustic than Conrad's. Farm organizations whose leaders think they will need all the help they can get in passing the new law were more reserved in their comments.
National Cotton Council Chairman Allen Helms said the NCC continues to support a farm program that provides a viable safety net and meets the needs of all segments of the industry.
“The council has testified at numerous hearings about the success of the 2002 farm bill,” Helms said. “The combination of an effective marketing loan, direct payment and counter-cyclical program is the foundation of the 2002 farm bill.”
The administration's farm bill proposal continues a basic structure for commodity programs similar to the 2002 farm bill, he noted. “However, our members will be concerned with several provisions, among which are the additional constraints imposed on benefit eligibility.”
The president's proposal calls for a new adjusted gross income limit of $200,000 per person and the elimination of the three-entity rule. Payments would be capped at $360,000 per person.
Helms pointed out that the NCC was beginning its annual meeting just after Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns announced the administration proposal and would be developing the council's policies.
“The administration's proposal brings additional ideas to what will be an intense debate. Our industry looks forward to working with Congress to craft a farm bill that will serve both U.S. cotton and U.S. agriculture in the future.”
National Corn Growers Association leaders appeared to find more to like in the administration proposals, judging from comments by NCGA President Ken McCauley. The NCGA has proposed a new revenue assurance program that is similar to the administration's revenue-based counter-cyclical concept.
“We were glad to hear the secretary heard from the countryside some of the same concerns that our members have been telling us — there are gaps in the current farm bill's safety net,” said McCauley. “USDA has obviously recognized the merit a farm bill such as NCGA's revenue-based proposal would have in providing a more effective and efficient farm safety net for producers.
“There are some components of the proposal we agree with and some we do not. We will study the proposal closely to see its impact on our growers.”
Environmental groups, on the other hand, said they believe the administration might be on the right track with some of its farm bill ideas.
“Secretary Johanns' farm bill proposal recognizes that farm and food policies could help many more farmers and ranchers, could provide consumers more healthy food and renewable energy choices, and could do much more to reward farmers and ranchers when they take steps to help the environment,” several groups said in a joint statement.
“This year, we will turn away more than 50,000 farmers and ranchers offering to share the cost of clean water, clean air, and wildlife habitat because of our misplaced federal spending priorities.
“The next farm bill is a chance to help many more farmers, consumers, communities and the environment. Secretary Johanns has helped to lay the groundwork for farm and food policy reforms that will ensure that the next farm bill helps meet America's pressing energy, health and environmental challenges.”
The groups said they applaud Secretary Johanns for proposing to increase spending on voluntary USDA conservation programs by $7.8 billion over 10 years. “We also welcome any proposal to restructure our farm safety net to link income support to stewardship, to place reasonable limits on subsidy payments, and to deny income support to producers who plow up grasslands to plant crops.”
They also applauded Johanns for proposing to increase USDA investments in renewable energy development on our farms and ranches and to focus these investments on cellulosic ethanol. However, we oppose proposals to permit the production of energy feed stocks on lands enrolled in the Conservation Reserve Program, the nation's most successful conservation program.”
Sen. Saxby Chambliss, the Georgia Republican who is now the ranking minority members on the Senate Agriculture Committee, said Johanns should be commended for bringing new ideas to the table.
“My goal is and always has been to make certain that the American farmer's voice is heard and their concerns are addressed in this process,” said Chambliss. “I value the secretary's recommendations; however, ultimately it is up to Congress to write comprehensive farm policy. Most importantly, this proposal should not be seen as a revision of our offer in the Doha Round.
“Congress will have the final say and set the final spending limits in the farm bill. It would be unproductive for our trading partners to assume otherwise. I look forward to working together with members of the committee to conquer the challenges we have ahead this year.”