Senate democrats generally agree on farm matters. But, there is division on one issue – the Northeast dairy compact. Midwest Senators say the cartel props up New England milk prices by controlling the supply of milk there, and dumping the excess into other regions. Senators from the northeast and the south want the compact to continue and be allowed to expand.
Legislation to do that will be addressed by the Senate Judiciary Committee, chaired by compact creator Vermont Senator Patrick Leahy. Not incidentally, Independent Senator James Jeffords of Vermont the linchpin of the democrat grip on the senate also favors the compact.
But any disagreement in the senate on the dairy compact, pales in comparison to the widening division of thought that is developing between the Senate and House on changing current farm law.
Enactment of a new farm law is still months away. But as the legislative posturing becomes earnest on Capitol Hill, two camps are emerging.
In the House of Representatives, Agriculture Committee Chairman Larry Combest favors payments to farmers based on production. The Texas Republican, with the backing of ranking minority member Charles Stenholm, has written a draft bill that would revive target prices as the mechanism for funneling those payments.
In the Senate, Agriculture Committee Chairman Tom Harkin prefers a conservation-based subsidy plan. The Iowa Democrat's Conservation Security Act would pay farmers up to $50,000 a year for making conservation the centerpiece of their operations.
Harkin: "The idea that you are just going to put money out there, not based upon production practices, not based upon, not based who you are, but based on what you did 20 years ago? It doesn't make any sense (edit) And a lot of these payments are going out to people who don't even farm. I've never made sense of that."
The debate over funding for conservation programs will shape the broader farm bill debate in the coming weeks. The House began drafting its version of the bill this week amid calls from Democrats to increase conservation spending by $7 billion to $8 billion a year. But their overall package would consume all of the additional funding that Congress has earmarked for agriculture over the next decade.
By comparison, House Republicans are looking at increasing spending for conservation programs by just $1.5 billion a year.
Traditionally, farm bill debates center on the division of subsidy dollars among widely grown commodities, like corn, soybeans, and cotton. Those subsidies would increase by up to $49 billion over 10 years under the Combest plan, which provides for counter-cyclical payments when prices slump.
The first battle lines on agriculture funding already have been drawn. The Senate Agriculture committee this week approved some 7.8 billion for farm aid for fiscal 2001. That's two billion dollars more than the Bush administration wants.
House Republicans back the White House proposal of a 5.5 billion-dollar bailout – and accuse the Senate democrats of provoking a confrontation that will delay delivery of the payments. The White House has said it will veto any aid package that exceeds the 5.5 billion-dollar total.