The Bush administration says it will support providing an additional $73.5 billion in funding for farm programs over the next 10 years when Congress returns from its Christmas-New Year's recess Jan. 23.
In a letter written to Rep. Larry Combest, R-Texas, shortly after the Senate failed to pass a farm bill in mid-December, White House officials gave the House Agriculture Committee chairman assurances that the administration would continue its support for the funding.
But some farm organizations are continuing to question whether Congress will pass new farm legislation before it adopts a new budget resolution that could wipe out the $73.5 billion allocation in last year's budget agreement.
“The president has been very clear about the policy we need to build long-term prosperity for America's farmers and ranchers,” said Mitch Daniels, director of the White House Office of Management and Budget. “The president also has been clear about the need for a generous farm bill in order to help farmers and ranchers through this difficult period.
“As a result, you have our commitment that the administration will continue to support additional 10-year program funding of $73.5 billion in accordance with the Congressional Budget Resolution.
Combest released the text of the letter after a bruising week that saw the Senate fail to invoke cloture on the farm bill debate on two occasions. The second came after the Senate defeated the Cochran-Roberts amendment, which the administration supported, and tried to take up the Senate Agriculture Committee bill, which it opposed.
Numerous farm organizations and Combest and Rep. Charles Stenholm, D-Texas, the ranking minority member on the House Ag Committee, had urged the Senate to complete action on the farm bill before Christmas so that it could go to a House Senate conference committee during the New Year's recess.
Farm organization leaders said the failure to pass a new farm bill shortly after Congress returns in January would handicap farmers seeking financing for their 2002 crops since most commodity prices are below many farmers' costs of production. Others were concerned about the budget outlook.
“If Congress does not pass a new farm bill before it writes a new budget resolution, we will be lucky to get half of the $73.5 billion that was allocated for additional farm spending in 2001,” said one farm organization vice president. (Last year's budget resolution was passed in May.)
“We're being told that the president has been willing to guarantee the $73.5 billion for the farm bill because the funds will have to come from the Social Security Trust Fund,” said the American Agriculture Movement's Harvey Joe Sanner.
“Can you imagine the outcry from the Environmental Working Group, the Heritage Foundation and the Cato Institute if that happens?”
Farm organizations also continued to question the efforts of some long-time allies when the chips were down on the Senate's failure to invoke cloture on the farm bill shortly before Christmas.
During the final action on the farm bill, only four Republicans — Sens. Tim Hutchinson of Arkansas, Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania and Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe of Maine — voted with Democrats to cut off debate and take up the Senate Agriculture Committee bill.
“A lot of Republicans in the South did not support cloture, and that's something they will have to explain,” said Keith Gray, a lobbyist for the Alabama Farmers Federation.
“One thing is certain, few are going to be welcomed with open arms by their constituents after three weeks of unproductive speeches, debate and posturing,” said Shawn Wade of Lubbock, Texas-based Plains Cotton Growers, Inc.
“In times past, a lack of technology prevented most people from seeing and hearing the debate over important legislative issues,” he noted. “With the spreading availability of cable, satellite television and the Internet virtually everyone can judge for themselves who is speaking for them and who has been listening to farmers.”
Many Mid-South farmers have questioned the actions of Mississippi Republican Senators Thad Cochran and Minority Leader Trent Lott during the final week of the farm bill debate.
While Cochran, who has been a staunch champion of agriculture all of his career, was on the losing side of the vote on the amendment he and Sen. Pat Roberts of Kansas authored, Lott failed to vote on either the Cochran-Roberts amendment or the cloture votes.
National Cotton Council officials said they were taking a “wait and see” attitude toward Cochran, who they called an important leader on farm issues for the last decade.
“But we're going to be extremely disappointed if we continue to see a stalemate in January,” said Cotton Council President Gaylon Booker.