As Congress begins dickering over what to do with farm legislation while facing the recent failure of World Trade Organization negotiations, an increasing budget deficit, and a negative trade balance, an already onerous task becomes even more arduous because of partisan politics.

“The environment in Congress is the worst I’ve seen in my lifetime,” said former congressman Charlie Stenholm, now a government affairs consultant with a Washington law firm.

Stenholm discussed prospects for the 2007 farm bill debate during his keynote address at the recent Texas Produce Conference in San Antonio, Texas.

As a consultant on agricultural issues, Stenholm will participate in his eighth farm bill debate as legislators begin drafting a 2007 bill. He said Congress’ task is to create a foundation for business to succeed and to support new business.

Stenholm, a charter member of the House Blue Dog Coalition, a fiscally conservative group of Democrats, was particularly critical of economic policies that created a massive federal deficit “to pay for tax cuts. I’m not opposed to properly-crafted tax cuts,” he said, “but you also have to cut spending. This is the first war where we cut taxes at the same time. This huge deficit bothers me.”

The numbers include:

In 1981, the U.S. deficit stood at $1 trillion with foreign loans accounting for 20 percent to 25 percent of the total. The ledger now shows an $8.4 trillion deficit with 50 percent owned by foreign investors.

“If we stay the course, we’ll have an $11.5 trillion deficit in five years with two-thirds of the debt owned by foreign bankers,” he said.

That comes with a rising trade deficit, he said. “How long can a country continue with a huge trade deficit without hurting markets?” he asked.

Stenholm reflected on the 2002 farm bill that he and former congressman Larry Combest crafted. ‘It was not a perfect bill,” he said. That bill marked the first time in U.S. history that both the chairman and ranking member of the House agriculture committee came from the same state.

“We did not always agree,” Stenholm said, “but we were good friends.” He said he and Combest put partisanship aside to develop the best farm bill they could get. He doesn’t see that kind of cooperation today.

e-mail: rsmith@farmpress.com