Farm bill divides lawmakers, President Bush

/ Source: The Associated Press

Lawmakers begin work on a new multibillion-dollar farm bill at odds with President Bush over whether big changes really are needed.

The two sides are far apart. Just how far, farmers saw for themselves during the American Farm Bureau Federation's recent meeting in Salt Lake City.

"I think the bill could look a lot like what we have now. What I think we're going to end up doing, you could say, is extending the farm bill," Rep. Collin Peterson, D-Minn., chairman of the House Agriculture Committee, told farmers.

Contrast that with Bush's agriculture secretary, Mike Johanns, who said at the meeting that farm programs need an overhaul.

"I will be the first to argue that the 2002 farm bill was good policy for its time," Johanns said. "But the agricultural and economic realities that influenced the development of the '02 farm bill - they simply don't exist."

Serious disagreements as current bill due to expire
The farm bill - really a series of federal programs - gives farmers payments and other help to supplement their incomes, support crop prices and manage supplies.

Near $18 billion in public money was spent on these programs last year. The current farm bill, written in 2002, expires at the end of this year.

Congress and the administration disagree mightily on what the new farm bill should look like.

Which side is closer to the wishes of Farm Bureau, the biggest general-interest agriculture group?

Right now, probably the House Agriculture Committee chairman, said Bob Stallman, the organization's president. Johanns advocated massive changes, Stallman said.

"That, frankly, is not what our delegates are saying," he said.

Its not that farmers are in lock step.

Illinois delegate Dale Hadden wants changes in farm programs and liked what Johanns said. With the Illinois River just a few miles from Hadden's corn and soybean fields, he ships most of his crop to the Gulf Coast to be exported.

"If we're going to be a player in international trade markets, we need to be sure we don't run into a lot of problems," Hadden said.

World Trade Organization concerns
There are serious disagreements over trade, cuts and payment limits.

The U.S. and other rich countries are under pressure from around the world to reduce their farm subsidies. Conflict over the issue led to the collapse last summer of World Trade Organization talks.

Without an agreement, American farmers face high tariffs and other barriers when they sell crops abroad - and they export a big chunk of their products.

Against this backdrop, Johanns has pushed for change as U.S. farm programs themselves come under fire. The WTO, in a case brought by Brazil, has ruled that some cotton subsidies are illegal. Canada is pursing a complaint about U.S. corn subsidies.

"Now of course the temptation may be to say to the WTO, 'You know what, folks? Take a hike,'" Johanns told farmers.

"Now, surely there are people in this room who grow rice," he said. "Fifty percent of the rice that you grow goes into the international market. Do you want us to ignore the WTO and jeopardize that market?"

Some farmers do want to ignore the trade issue. Johanns drew a smattering of unexpected applause at the idea of telling the WTO to take a hike.

Peterson, too, is disinclined to worry too much about the WTO.

"I want to write a farm bill that's good for agriculture," he said. "If somebody wants to sue us, we've got a lot of lawyers in Washington."

Cuts in bill likely
There probably will be fewer dollars for farm programs when Congress writes the latest bill. The Democratic-run Congress is insisting on budget cuts to pay for new spending, and Bush has pledged to balance the budget in five years.

Johanns seems to be preparing lawmakers to do more with less. High subsidies, he told Farm Bureau members, do not necessarily equal a strong farm economy.

At the same time, Peterson argues against reducing farm spending. That is a tough sell because the farm bill has cost billions of dollars less than lawmakers thought it would.

Peterson says agriculture somehow should be credited for wise spending. "We feel like we've done our part," Peterson said. "I'm not going to say this is going to be easy, but we feel like we're going to be able to get the resources."

Peterson also wants to include a permanent disaster aid program in the farm bill; Congress has considered drought and hurricane aid separately. But Farm Bureau delegates voted against such a program because they worried it could take money away from other farm spending.

Payment problems in the South
Johanns favors ending practices that allow some growers to collect millions of dollars annually above the $350,000 limit on payments.

He has broad support in Congress - except from Southerners, who would feel limits more keenly because their cotton and rice crops, cost more to grow and get higher subsidies.

Peterson said a farm bill cannot pass without support from Southern lawmakers.

"I'm not interested in putting our agriculture friends in the South in trouble. They've got enough problems," he said.