Ag secretary discusses farm bill process as extention signed
By Heather Carlile
Congress and President Bush have agreed to another extension of the 2002 farm bill. Congress now has until April 18 to finalize a new farm bill.
If a final agreement isn’t reached by then, the president will call on Congress to extend current law for at least one year.
"While long-term extension of current law is not the desired outcome, I believe the government has a responsibility to provide America’s farmers and ranchers with a timely and predictable farm program — not multiple short-term extensions of current law," President Bush said in a statement. "Without a predictable policy, agriculture producers will be unable to make sound business decisions with respect to this year’s crop."
The 2002 law originally expired Sept. 30 and has been continually extended.
Congress is stalled over funding issues for the 2008 bill. U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Ed Schafer said proposals from the Senate have about $10 billion in new spending. So far, the administration has agreed to $6 billion.
"If we’re going to agree to $10 billion... then they have to put the funding sources on the table to do so, and we’ll make appropriate conversations then about what’s going to be acceptable to the administration," Schafer said.
The issue is complicated by the president’s veto threat. He has said a bill’s new funding must come from program reforms, not tax increases. However, Schafer said the bills that passed through the House and Senate last year lacked reforms and use tax increases.
"At a time when we are enjoying a booming farm economy with record commodity prices, record farm income, record exports, it’s simply unacceptable to provide spending that increases the size and scope of government while increasing taxes to the people who pay for it," Schafer said.
Congress is also in a stalemate over jurisdictional issues. Deputy Secretary Chuck Conner, who Schafer referred to as his "mentor on all things farm bill," said that when Congress made their decision to bring taxes into the equation, more committees got involved, bringing people into the process who don’t necessarily have a strong agricultural background.
"They have a totally different set of interests they are bringing to the table than perhaps the House and the Senate agriculture committees. And that’s a huge complicating factor," he said.
Schafer stressed that a long-term extension of the 2002 farm bill isn’t ideal. An extension would leave out programs such as specialty crop subsidies, research for specialty crops that could fight obesity, increased cost for nutrition and nutrition assistance and provisions for renewable energy.
National Farmers Union President Tom Buis said a long-term extension isn’t the right choice.
"We don’t favor an extension. I think that sets off a food fight over revenues available," he said.
NFU’s position is that a new bill is needed but, if it doesn’t come, Buis thinks permanent law should go into effect to get Congress moving.
"I think if permanent law went into effect, it wouldn’t last very long," he said.
Buis expressed frustration that Congress is having trouble finding $10 billion for the new farm bill.
"It’s not a question of whether there’s enough money," he said. "It’s a question of priorities of where you spend that money...$10 billion, relatively speaking in this federal budget, is a minor amount and we think they can find it."
Schafer is also optimistic and hopeful that Congress can provide a new bill.
"I think Chuck and I both agree that the leaders are committed here in Congress, that they are trying to resolve their differences," he said.