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Tense Negotiations Continue as Farm Bill Approaches Expiration

posted on March 7, 2008


WASHINGTON (AP)--Congressional negotiations over multibillion-dollar farm legislation are closing in on a March deadline as some members of Congress are tempering expectations back home.

Members of the House and Senate have spent some of the congressional recess in late February haggling over the details of the five-year, $286 billion bills passed by the House and Senate last year. The legislation would expand and extend farm and nutrition programs.

But talks are still at an impasse as the Bush administration threatens to veto the bills, saying they are too expensive and pay too many subsidies to wealthy farmers.

Current law has been extended to March 15, when it will expire. After that, Congress must again extend current law or it will revert to permanent law last updated in 1949. That could be devastating for many farm industries, including dairy and soybeans.

North Dakota Sen. Kent Conrad, a Democrat who is one of the senators negotiating the bill, said talks have been tough as lawmakers look for enough dollars to distribute to different parts of the farm economy. There was more federal money to go around in 2002, when the last farm bill was written.

"There is work being done on the framework of an agreement," Conrad said. But all sides have not yet signed off on a plan.

Recently, House Agriculture Committee Chairman Collin Peterson, D-MN, and Virginia Rep. Robert Goodlatte, the top Republican on the committee, proposed a plan that had the backing of the Bush administration. It included stricter limits on subsidies paid to wealthy farmers and slashing extra spending for farm programs.

Senators immediately rejected that plan, however, and proposed their own, more generous plan. According to lawmakers familiar with the negotiations, members are now working to strike a balance between the two proposals.

According to farm-state members of Congress traveling their districts this week, reactions were mixed from farmers watching the bill's progress.

In the Dakotas, Montana and other drought-prone states, lawmakers touted a $5 billion fund that would compensate farmers who lose crops due to weather. That was one of the programs on the chopping block in the most recent House proposal.

The House proposal would also drop increases in loan rates and target prices for wheat, barley and oats, along with other crops.

Sen. Max Baucus, D-MT, is also part of the group negotiating the bill. He said that safety net is an important part of the package.

"Wheat prices are OK today, but I don't know that wheat prices will be like in a few years," he said.

Montana Sen. Jon Tester, also a Democrat, said farmers are concerned about what will happen after March 15.

"It's the uncertainty of having no farm bill when we're approaching planting season," he said, arguing that it's a mistake to try and meet all of the demands of the Bush administration.

"If Bush vetoes it he vetoes it," Tester said. "Then come back and rework it."

Montana Rep. Denny Rehberg said he blames the current impasse on House Democrats, who used a new tax to pay for nutrition programs in the original House bill passed last July. That tax, which would have hit some international businesses, caused many Republicans to vote against the bill and raised the ire of the Bush administration.

"That blew up the whole thing," he said.

At an event in South Dakota, Democratic Sen. Tim Johnson told constituents asking about the bill that "it's a mess."

"The mess is due to Republicans and Democrats both," he said, adding that he hopes for compromise.

"I'm optimistic that the dust will settle and we'll be OK," Johnson said. "Everyone has to give up a bit. But my way or the highway will not work at all."

South Dakota Rep. Stephanie Herseth Sandlin, a Democrat, said farmers are willing to live with some elements of the stricter House proposal.

"No one's going to get everything they want," she said.


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