WASHINGTON (AP) – Farm-state lawmakers say tough congressional negotiations lie ahead for the five-year farm bill, mostly due to strong White House opposition to the $286 billion legislation.
Members of the House and Senate agriculture committees say two issues stand out above the others as Congress tries to hammer out a deal: how the bill will be paid for and how much the legislation will limit federal farm subsidies to wealthy farmers.
House Agriculture Committee Chairman Collin Peterson, D-Minn., said he has had at least seven meetings with Acting Agriculture Secretary Charles Conner since the Senate passed its version of the bill in December. The House passed its bill in July.
Those negotiations have not gone very well, Peterson said. The White House has threatened to veto both versions of the legislation.
“They are being pretty inflexible,” he said.
At issue are tax provisions added to both versions of the bill that are intended to raise additional money for farm programs. The Bush administration says the bills use funding gimmicks and tax increases to supplement a farm economy that is already strong.
The White House also says neither bill does enough to limit payments to wealthy farmers, arguing that Congress should adapt an administration proposal that would ban subsidies to farmers whose gross income exceeds an average of $200,000 a year.
Both bills attempt to limit subsidies somewhat. The Senate legislation would eventually ban payments to “nonfarmers” whose income averages more than $750,000 a year, defining farmers as those who earn more than two-thirds of their income from agriculture. The House would ban payments to farmers and nonfarmers who earn an average of $1 million a year or more.
Peterson suggested that if the negotiations come to a stalemate, Congress might bypass an extension of current law — the 2002 law expires March 15 — and allow farm law to revert to permanent statutes last updated in 1949.
“I don’t think it’s that unreasonable,” Peterson said. “I told (Conner) if they are inflexible and it causes us not to get this done, then they should get ready to implement this. That’s my position.”
Peterson said the permanent law contains adequate price thresholds for some crops, though he acknowledges it would cause problems for the dairy and soybean industries.
He said that simply allowing the 2002 law to expire could be easier than pushing an extension through Congress, since several groups who would get more money in the new House and Senate farm bills would likely oppose it. Those groups could include fruit and vegetable growers, conservation advocates and various crop organizations.
Conner said reverting to current law is not a good idea. He expressed hope that the two sides can agree on a new law by March 15. He agreed that the administration has been unyielding on the tax issues.
“We are pretty inflexible on the prospect of raising taxes as a part of a farm bill,” he told The Associated Press. “Taxes are the fundamental issue that has to be resolved before we can even start talking about the rest of the bill.”
Still, he said, negotiators are discussing ways to find money for the bill.
“It’s going to be difficult,” Conner said. “I still remain confident that we can resolve this issue.”
Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, suggested last week that one way to find additional money would be to cut direct payments to farmers — subsidies paid to producers of certain crops regardless of yield.
Neither the House nor Senate version of the bill cuts those payments. But Harkin and Peterson both have been open to the idea in the past.
“As far as I’m concerned, direct payments are still on the table,” Harkin told reporters last week.
North Dakota Sen. Kent Conrad, the Democratic chairman of the Senate Budget Committee and a senior member of the agriculture panel, agreed that cutting direct payments might have to be an option if the administration continues to balk.
“I don’t think at this stage you can consider it off the table because of the intransigence of the administration,” Conrad said. “The administration has showed no willingness to compromise on anything.”
Members of the House appeared more skeptical of that approach. Peterson and Rep. Stephanie Herseth Sandlin, D-S.D., a member of the House Agriculture Committee, noted that any reductions in direct payments could upset members from the South who represent rice and cotton growers.
Those crops are more expensive to produce, and negotiations and agreements with those lawmakers were a vital part of moving a compromise bill through both chambers.
Herseth Sandlin noted that many of those lawmakers are Republicans.
“This is more of a philosophical, ideological tension in the GOP,” she said.
Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., agreed that cutting direct payments is not a good idea. He said he hopes Democratic leaders convene official House-Senate negotiations soon so the talks aren’t just between a few people.
“We aren’t ever going to be able to find something that satisfies all the White House objections, but we can make a good faith effort,” he said.
Farm groups say their members are getting impatient.
“I have talked to a lot of farmers and I can tell you they don’t really care whether something is a budget gimmick, or closing a loophole, or providing a tax credit,” American Farm Bureau Federation President Bob Stallman said at the group’s annual convention earlier this month. “They don’t really care about all the back and forth from Democrats and Republicans on those issues. What our members care about is, are we going to have a farm bill and when are we going to know what the rules are so we can plan our planting operation?”
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