If you think that giant clucking sound you've been hearing is Congress and the White House playing chicken with the farm bill, you might not be far off the mark.

While farmers can only sit and wonder what might be in store for them, congressional leaders and the administration are trying to see who blinks first on farm program spending and “reforming payment limits.”

Ed Schafer, the new agriculture secretary, told participants in USDA's annual Agricultural Outlook Forum that if an agreement cannot be reached, there probably will be no new farm bill this year, and the 2002 law would have to be extended.

But the next day, House Agriculture Committee Chairman Collin Peterson told Congress Daily's Jerry Hagstrom he would let the 1938 and 1949 Agriculture Acts or “permanent law” go into effect rather than extend the 2002 legislation.

He would support a short-term extension if Congress and the White House had an agreement and were tying up “loose ends.” But, if he and Deputy Agriculture Secretary Chuck Conner can't find a compromise, efforts to pass a new law will stop. “It will be a hell of a mess if we get permanent law,” Peterson said. “If we have permanent law for two or three weeks, we'd get a bill.”

While permanent law might not be as draconian as some make out, it would create some interesting challenges. (The Food Stamp program would not be terminated as some rumors have it, but commodity loan rates would jump significantly.)

House committee leaders and administration officials have agreed to a proposal that would allow farm bill spending of $6 billion over the 10-year CBO baseline of $596.6 billion. Senate Ag Committee members balked at the deal, however, saying it left too many programs unfunded.

The latter countered with a proposal they said would be $12.3 billion over the baseline, but which Schafer says would actually work out to $23 billion over baseline, and “that is not going to happen.”

At press time, senators and House leaders reportedly were working on a compromise proposal of $9 billion over baseline. Negotiators were also trying to decide on definitions of a tax increase and, believe it or not, a farm.

Farm groups have been watching the process, wondering what will be left on the table. The House committee's $6-billion-over baseline package omitted a number of items, including the National Cotton Council's 14-point market enhancement proposal and added funding for conservation, energy and nutrition programs.

Schafer says administration officials aren't locked into the $6 billion and would allow the number to rise slightly. That's generous considering the president's farm bill proposal was $8.5 billion over baseline.

The New York Times put in its two cents, demanding in a Feb. 22 editorial the new law increase funding for food stamps and conservation while decreasing subsidies to “rich farmers who never had it so good.”

Meanwhile, back in Washington, the game of chicken goes on.