According to the Commerce Department, the U.S. trade deficit shrunk by 5.6 percent in March as demand for imports fell by the largest amount in more than six years.
The decline was led by a nearly six percent decrease -- -- believe it or not -- -- in America's foreign oil bill. The amount of petroleum imported in March actually fell as the average price for crude oil jumped to an all-time high.
That trend continued this week with crude oil posting record highs every day en route to a close Friday of nearly $126 per barrel.
Higher fuel prices are readily apparent in rural America where spring planting is in full swing. This year, the only thing more uncertain than the weather is the future of government farm programs. But, the controversial and often misunderstood nature of government farm policy got a bit clearer this week, when House and Senate lawmakers announced they had come to terms on the Farm Bill.
Rep. Collin Peterson, D-Minnesota: "Right now, we're not at the finish line. We've got work to do and we've got to get the bill through the House and Senate."
A bi-partisan team of lawmakers claimed the long and winding road towards the 2007 Farm Bill is near completion and ready for a floor vote. Despite a veto threat from President Bush, Senators and Congressmen at this week's press conference hailed a series of Farm Bill reforms and compromises.
Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa: "The bill provides a stong farm safety net so its good for our farmers and ranchers. Consumers will like it because it increases farmer's markets and insures a safe and dependable supply of food. And for school children, it increases their access to fresh fruits and vegetables."
The $300 billion Farm Bill proposal includes a litany of entitlements, tax breaks, and regulation over government farm programs. Lawmakers claim the measure heavily favors nutrition programs. In fact, nearly 75 percent of the Farm Bill budget is designated for nutrition programs like food stamps, school lunch initiatives, and funds for food pantries. An additional 16 percent of the Farm Bill budget could be directed to commodities – a drop in overall percentage from the 2002 total of 29 percent. Conservation programs like CRP could receive as much as 7% of the entire Farm Bill budget.
The most contentious issue would establish new federal payment limits to farmers. Under proposed rules, farmers making more than $750,000 in adjusted gross income would NOT receive federal payments. That number is a dramatic drop from the existing limit of $2.5 million but falls short of reforms suggested by President Bush. In addition to deeper cuts in farm payments, the Bush Administration favors a smaller overall budget.
Sec. Edward Schafer: "What Congress has proposed today is not what is needed. Congress has presented a bill that provides subsidies to farmers at a time of record farm income. They have given us a bill that raises taxpayer spending at a time of tighter budgets. And they have given us a bill that restricts our ability to help the hungry at a time of rising food costs."
But despite criticism, even some farm-state Republicans are differing with the President.
Sen. Saxby Chambliss: "We did make real reforms in all of the commodity title but no more significant reforms than payment limits. We moved as far as we could towards the Administration's on their request."
Lawmakers in support of the measure estimate $2.5 billion in savings to federal taxpayers over a 10-year period. But questions remain over funding the omnibus spending package. Some lawmakers, many from urban areas, have questioned what they call a "pork-laden" budget.
Ranking House Agriculture Committee Chairman Collin Peterson attempted to quell much of the concerns of urban lawmakers this week.
Rep. Collin Peterson, D-Minnesota: "And the problem is we have editorial writers still writing that the entire $300 billion goes to farmers. The truth is something like $36 to $40 billion goes to farmers."
The bill also establishes a permanent disaster assistance program, mandates a country of origin labeling program, and bans conservation payments to individuals making more than $1 million.
The 2007 Farm Bill legislative process has stretched well into 2008 after a series of extensions and lengthy negotiations. The Bush Administration continues to threaten a veto of what they deem a "bloated" and expensive bill. The White House is in favor of a one-year extension of current farm law.
Lawmakers could vote as early as next week on final passage of the Farm Bill.