Agriculture Secretary Ed Schafer says the farm bill conference report Congress will consider in the next few days would cost taxpayers another $20 billion above baseline spending for the long-awaited legislation.

And even if it only cost $10 billion over baseline, as farm bill negotiators claim, the bill still doesn’t contain enough “reform” to keep President Bush from vetoing it, Schafer told reporters attending a news conference Friday (May 9).

Schafer’s comments drew an angry response from North Dakota Sen. Kent Conrad, considered one of the principal authors of the farm bill agreement, during a press briefing held two hours after Schafer’s. Conrad and Senate Agriculture Committee Chair Tom Harkin briefed reporters to “correct inaccuracies” in administration statements.

“These are fictional numbers based on made-up scorekeeping that the administration has never applied to its own legislation or budgets,” Conrad said of Schafer’s claim that the conference report increases spending by $20 billion.

“Under CBO scoring, our farm bill spends $10 billion above baseline over the budget window. That’s not my number. That’s the number from CBO, which is Congress’ nonpartisan, independent budget agency.”

Schafer, who was joined by Deputy Agriculture Secretary Chuck Conner at the USDA news briefing, said the administration would have been willing to consider a conference report with $10 billion in additional spending if it contained “real reforms” of farm programs.

“Unfortunately, this bill does not reform farm programs,” Schafer said. “In fact, in some areas it would take a step backward. It actually increases government spending on sugar, so domestic producers can be assured of nearly double the world price.” (The farm bill increases the loan rate for sugar by three-fourths of a cent to 18.75 cents for cane sugar.)

The secretary said the farm bill reportedly would increase loan rates for 15 crops and target prices for 17 crops, which “is trade-distorting support that makes our programs vulnerable to challenge from abroad at a time when trade is more important than ever. In states like North Dakota, trade accounts for 50 percent of the market for our agriculture products.

(During the news conference, Schafer, former governor of North Dakota, acknowledged the current governor had called the secretary to inform him he was supporting the farm bill conference report.)

He also said the bill does not reform the beneficial interest program, a practice he said allows farmers to lock in loan deficiency payments when prices are low but wait to sell their crops when prices are high, nor does it “set a reasonable income limit for when a producer can graduate from taxpayer support.”

Schafer’s comments, which repeated a litany of complaints about the House and Senate farm bills going back to last summer with former Secretary Mike Johanns, have drawn consternation among farmers and ranchers and their organizations.

Summarizing the farm bill activities in his weekly newsletter, the executive director of one farm group advised his members not to listen to the secretary’s comments unless they “need to raise their blood pressure.”

Although he refuted a number of Schafer’s claims (his lists of rebuttals ran seven pages), Conrad said this statement by Schafer had to be addressed: “At a time of record farm income, Congress decided to further increase farm subsidy rates, qualify more people for taxpayer support and move programs toward more government control.”

“Commodity program spending is reduced, not increased, in this farm bill,” said Conrad. “For example, the bill cuts direct payments by $300 million. Crop insurance spending is cut $5.7 billion. Even after accounting for the disaster program, the farm safety net is cut by $3.5 billion.

“Commodity programs under this farm bill will account for only 0.25 percent of the federal budget, down significantly from 0.75 percent in the last farm bill.”

e-mail: flaws@farmpress.com