Speaker Dennis Hastert named 14 House members to the House-Senate conference committee that many hope will complete work on a 2002 farm bill in the next three weeks or before Congress leaves for its Easter recess March 22.

There were no surprises among the 14 House members, who included the chairman and ranking minority member of the House Agriculture Committee, the chairmen of its subcommittees and several prominent farm-state representatives. Other members could be added for discussions on specific sections of the farm bill.

The 14 House conferees, who will join seven members of the Senate, face a formidable task by all accounts whether they finish work on the farm bill by March 22, the date Congress begins in recess.

House Agriculture Committee Chairman Larry Combest and Ranking Minority Member Charlie Stenholm, both of Texas, said they were pleased with the wide regional representation on the House side of the conference committee.

“The House goes into conference with a well-thought-out and balanced farm bill, backed by a bi-partisan, two-to-one margin of support behind its Oct. 5th passage,” Combest said. “We built the House-passed farm bill with input from all kinds of farmers in every region, and we will maintain that balance with the conferees appointed today.”

Besides Combest, Republicans on the conference committee include John Boehner of Ohio, Saxby Chambliss of Georgia, Bob Goodlatte of Virginia, Richard Pombo of California, Terry Everett of Alabama, Frank Lucas of Oklahoma and Jerry Moran of Kansas.

The other Democrats are Gary Condit and Cal Dooley of California, Eva Clayton of North Carolina, Collin Peterson of Minnesota and Tim Holden of Pennsylvania.

Senate Democrats on the committee will include Agriculture Committee Chairman Tom Harkin of Iowa, Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, Patrick Leahy of Vermont and Kent Conrad of North Dakota. Republicans are Richard Lugar of Indiana, Jesse Helms of North Carolina and Thad Cochran of Mississippi.

Big dollar difference

The conferees face several thorny issues, including how to resolve an $8.2 billion difference in the cost estimates for the first five years for the House and Senate versions of the farm bill.

That's after the Congressional Budget Office released a new cost projection of $44.7 billion for the farm bill passed by the Senate on Feb. 13. The total is about $6 billion more than the CBO had said when the Senate was debating the Daschle-Harkin bill back in December. The House bill would spend $36.5 billion in the first five years.

Bush administration officials have said they object to the manner in which the Senate bill appears to “front-load” its benefits into the first five years of the farm bill in comparison to the House bill, which spreads its funding evenly over the 10-year life of its legislation.

Other areas of disagreement:

  • Payment limitations. The Grassley-Dorgan Amendment in S. 1713, the Senate bill, contains a lower payment limitation of $275,000 than the House bill's $550,000, but it also eliminates the three-entity rule, applies means testing and does away with the availability of generic commodity certificates.

    Some observers say that including the Grassley/Dorgan provisions in the final farm bill could mean that half the farmers in some southern counties would be forced out of business in 2002.

  • Packer ownership of slaughter cattle. The Senate bill contains an amendment authored by Democrat Tim Johnson of South Dakota that would ban the ownership of slaughter livestock by meatpackers. The House bill does not.

  • Higher loan rates. The Senate bill contains marketing loan rates for the major row crops that are 10 to 20 percent higher than the current rates in the House bill with the exception of soybeans. The latter are reduced as part of the Senate bill's attempt to re-balance loan rates between the commodities.

  • Crop base and yield updates. The Senate bill would allow producers to adjust their crop bases and yields, while the House bill covers crop bases only.

  • Increased conservation spending. The Senate version includes spending for the new Conservation Security Act authored by Sen. Harkin. The House bill increases spending for conservation, but directs more money to commodity programs.

Washington observers say it is impossible to predict how long the conference committee will take to work out those and other differences. Combest has said House members will work as quickly as possible, but it may take longer than expected for him to produce a “good” bill, or one closer to the House-passed legislation.

USDA officials have said they won't make predictions about how long the conference committee might take, but that it “would be helpful” to USDA's efforts to implement the farm bill for the 2002 spring crops if they completed their work by March 22.

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