In the wake of the September 11 tragedies, the U.S. House debated its version of the next farm bill. Despite the reality that the nation was about to enter an expensive and perhaps prolonged war on terrorism, despite opposition from the White House amid projections of lower tax revenues, the House voted through a massively expensive ten-year measure. The Senate Agriculture Committee has been mulling a more financially modest proposal, much of it the product of Committee Chairman Tom Harkin, an Iowa Democrat. And this week the White House, via ranking minority member Dick Lugar, unveiled its version of a farm bill.
Three distinct camps have emerged in the farm bill debate in Washington. House Republicans are looking to extend farm programs to 10 years and expand subsidies to grain and cotton farmers at a cost of some $170 billion. Senate Democrats want a more conservation-minded approach that would cost taxpayers less, but they oppose phasing out all crop subsidies. And this week the White House weighed in, backing a five-year, $25 billion plan proposed by Indiana Senator Richard Lugar. At its core, Lugar's plan would phase out crop subsidies, double spending on conservation, and pay farmers to employ risk management strategies. The plan would cut aid to grain and cotton farmers and give money to fruit, vegetable and livestock producers. The administration says Lugar's proposal is consistent with the president's principles and reiterated criticism that existing farm programs encourage overproduction and benefit large producers the most. Instead of subsidies, Lugar's plan would offer vouchers worth up to 6 percent of average gross farm revenue to producers who practice effective conservation and risk management. The vouchers could be used to buy insurance against revenue drops ... or to match deposits in IRA-type savings accounts. The payments also could be used for marketing contracts. The Senate Agriculture Committee's plans to begin debate this week on the farm bill were shelved by the anthrax scare sweeping Congress. Though the Senate remains in session, the shutdown of some Senate offices delayed work on the new farm bill until next week. Aides to Committee Chairman Tom Harkin of Iowa say the first matters considered will be non-controversial sections of the bill dealing with farm credit.