Saxby Chambliss says farmers should get a “deficit reduction” credit for the $13 billion the government was expected to spend on farm programs in the first three years of the 2002 farm bill but didn’t.

Chambliss, the Senate Agriculture Committee chairman, said farmers are willing to share in the Bush administration’s budget-cutting efforts, but he believes they made a big down payment to that end in 2002-04.

That was then and this is now, says Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns. He says that, even with the farm program reductions the president proposed on Feb. 6, the administration expects to spend $7 billion more in FY 2007 than projected in the 2002 farm bill.

This classic case of glass half full or glass half empty may be just the first in a series of dust-ups over the 2007 farm bill, which promises to strain the already tenuous relationship between farm-state congressmen and USDA.

In outlining the details of the president’s proposal, Johanns acknowledged that expenditures were lower than originally projected during the first three years after President Bush signed the 2002 farm bill. That began to change in 2006, however.

“Expenditures increased to historically high levels, well above the 2002 farm bill estimates. Actual CCC expenditures were over $20 billion in 2005. They are projected to exceed $21 billion in 2006,” he told reporters. “Last year there was an expectation that the farm bill expenditures would end up below the 2002 projections. But that’s not the case.”

Well, duh. Most farmers who followed the deliberations would say this is how the 2002 law was intended to work. Farm prices were higher in 2002-04 for a variety of reasons, and farm program payments were lower. Farm prices dropped for almost every major program crop in 2005, and payments were higher.

In his comments to reporters, Johanns conceded that Commodity Credit Corp. expenditures are highly variable, reflecting the impact of weather and growing conditions on crop production and the resulting changes in commodity prices.

But the only number that matters is the deficit, which farmers must share in reducing even though agriculture would take the third highest cut – behind Justice and Transportation – of any department in the president’s budget.

Johanns said the president’s proposal, which includes a 5 percent across-the-board reduction in commodity payments and a cap of $250,000 on payments to individuals, will save the government $1 billion in 2007 and $7.7 billion over the next 10 years.

He said some may have been surprised at a vote on a payment limit amendment in the Senate last fall. “It was defeated, but a substantial number of senators were very, very convinced this was the appropriate direction.” (The vote, 53-46, also shows more senators were opposed to it.)

Johanns says the administration is months away from weighing in on the new farm bill. But it’s becoming increasingly clear farmers will get their share – and then some – of the administration’s new farm policy.

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