Agree with him or not, Collin Peterson's tenure as chairman of the House Agriculture Committee has been marked by frank talk. And in late January, with a new farm bill mired in negotiations and political posturing, the Minn-esota Democrat certainly isn't changing his approach.
Any hope the Bush administration had that veto threats would soften the chairman's stance on key farm bill provisions surely died with a Peterson's press conference in late January.
Despite frequent post-Christmas meetings between House, Senate and White House representatives, farm bill negotiations are at an impasse. In trying to reach a deal, Peterson claimed the White House is playing chief speed bump.
“We don't seem to be making a lot of progress on the impasse over how to finance things. The (Bush) administration says they want to sign a bill. I take them at their word. My attitude has been to figure out a way to do this so we don't get into a veto situation.”
In recent meetings, Peterson reported, acting USDA Secretary Chuck Connor has made it clear White House veto threats — mostly tied to an insistence on lower producer payment limits — are not idle.
“It's all well and good they have their position,” said Peterson. “But if we did what they wanted, I don't believe the bill would pass (Congress). But we're still talking and getting along and trying to figure out if there's some way to resolve this.”
On Jan. 19, Peterson, Connor, and Sen. Tom Harkin, Senate Agriculture Committee chairman, agreed to get a deal done by Congress' February break. However, “given how this is going, I'm not sure how we'll get there unless there's real escalation in movement.”
The frequent breaks Congress takes are also an impediment in crafting a new farm bill. Too many politicians aren't up to speed on the issues and legislation. “I think it'll take a couple of weeks for them to figure out how big a problem we have here,” rued Peterson. “That may run us out of time.”
Those in favor of a long-term extension of current law will likely be disappointed. Such an extension would not be easy to pass. “A lot of resources in the bill — food stamps, conservation, fruit and vegetables — won't be happy with that. It could re-ignite a situation … we may not be able to win.”
Peterson — also reluctant to “give the administration a short-term extension” — has been investigating what would happen if permanent law went into effect. “Frankly, I think permanent law is workable given the current market situation. We'd have an $8.32 loan on wheat, for example, and $4.12 on corn, $3.75 on sorghum, $2.99 on barley. All those loan rates are below the current market prices with the exception of cotton, at $1.32. But the time for referendum on cotton has passed and won't come up again until July 15.”
If pressed against the March 15 deadline, “a likely outcome is to send a bill to the president that he'd either sign or we'd have permanent law. That's where we are.”
Asked about Senate and House differences that are yet to be ironed out in conference, Peterson said they aren't as “contentious as they are complicated. In terms of food stamps, conservation and fruits and vegetables, there isn't much difference in policy. It's more an issue of money.
“The Senate passed its bill by terminating increases in the second five years to get around the pay-go rules. We have a problem with that and don't think it's a legitimate way to approach things. It's a bending of the pay-go rules beyond what we think is reasonable — and I believe the (Bush) administration agrees.”
The two intransigent problems with the new farm bill are financing and the Bush administration “continuing to push payment limits for so-called reforms they define as adjusted gross income. They continue to push proposals that are an anathema to Southerners. It's almost a war between Republicans on that issue — and we've been trying to mediate.”
The willingness of the White House to decry additional agriculture spending while enthusiastically running up deficits elsewhere clearly irritates Peterson. “It's hard for me to stomach when we pass the war supplemental without pay-go, we pass the AMT without pay-go. Now, apparently, we'll spend $150 billion on a so-called economic stimulus package, which I think is questionable, without pay-go.
“Yet they want to undermine agriculture, the one part of the economy doing pretty well, by getting in a dispute over $10 billion. Meanwhile, we've added $300 billion to the deficit in the last two months. That makes no sense to me.”
Asked if the White House knows his position on a return to permanent law, Peterson was unequivocal.
“I believe they think I'm bluffing. This is exactly why we fought to keep permanent law in the 2002 (farm) bill. The (Bush) administration wanted to eliminate it.
“Is this leverage? Sure. But (permanent law) is also something I'm willing to live with and, at this point, I'd prefer over an extension. That's my position and I've told (Connor) that many times. I don't think he believes me.”
Permanent law might have looked “ridiculous” a few years ago but “given the current pricing structure in agriculture it doesn't look ridiculous (now).
“I don't want to get into a deal where the (Bush) administration will veto a bill. I'll do everything I can to work this out. I'm not in the camp that believes it would be good for them to veto because (Democrats would) win politically. No, it would be bad for agriculture to have a bill vetoed.
“This is a good bill we're putting together. It will be much preferable to an extension or permanent law.
“But what the (Bush) administration has on the table at this point are cuts. They only want to cut. They want to cut significant money out of food stamps, out of conservation, out of fruits and vegetables and out of the commodity title.”
Cuts aren't off the table, said Peterson, but what the White House is pushing “cannot pass Congress. The reality is, the (Bush) administration went around the country and held 50 meetings trying to sell their plan. They didn't sell it. (Those efforts) didn't translate into votes in Congress. We brought their bill up in my committee and it got zero votes. That hasn't changed.
“They have the power of veto and we're trying to accommodate them. But it can't be an all-or-nothing deal. If they want to play that game, I'm comfortable going to permanent law. They'll have to decide what they want to do.”
The White House wasn't the sole object of Peterson's ire. Claims by “the press and editorials” that farm bill funds will largely go to rich farmers is “the biggest bunch of baloney perpetrated on this country. There is no new money going to farmers. There's actually less going to farmers in this bill than under current law. People need to be honest about that.”