Thumbing its nose at a disapproving Bush administration, the House of Representatives passed its version of the new farm bill in a slam-dunk, 291 to 120. It calls for spending $170 billion on farm programs over the next 10 years.

The bill, H.R. 2646, resurrects the target price concept, putting a safety net under grain and cotton farmers when prices are low. It's a sharp turn away from the 1996 “Freedom to Farm” law designed to wean farmers from government supports.

By all accounts, the 1996 law failed, forcing costly government emergency payments to farmers each of the past four years.

“The bill reforms our farm programs in a way that will not require the emergency expenditures of the past few years. The 1996 farm bill was a philosophical document written by the House committee leadership. It was an utter failure. It failed our farmers,” says Charles Stenholm, D-Texas, ranking minority member on the ag committee.

“We provide a safety net so we don't have to come back to Congress for ad hoc assistance. It provides a pro-active market-oriented solution to the critical economic crisis eroding the footing of our farmers for the last four years,” says Larry Combest, R-Texas, House Ag Committee chairman.

“This is the most balanced farm bill that could be produced for all aspects of agriculture. It has support from all sectors as well as lenders, dealers and service companies,” said Rep. Ruben Hinojosa, D-Texas, following the bill's passage.

“Hoosier farmers need this bill. I believe farm security is about national security. We must not only remember Wall Street, we must remember Main Street,” said Mike Pence, R-Ind.

“Farmers should not have to rely on a supplemental bailout every year. No other nation has the luxury of taking its food supply for granted,” said Sam Graves, R-Missouri.

Favor quick action

House Agriculture Committee leaders would like to see the Senate take quick action on its farm bill version, making it possible to put the new law into force before the end of the year, which would be almost a year prior to the 1996 law's sunset next September.

“We don't know what the Senate is going to do,” said Combest. “My understanding is some members on a bipartisan basis are looking to introduce the House bill in the Senate. In the past we've waited until the year of expiration of the bill, but farmers need to know as quickly as possible what they will be farming under. It's good for planning.”

A Bush administration policy statement issued as the House considered the bill indicated the president's disapproval. “The administration believes it is possible to craft a policy that is better for rural America, better for the environment, and better for expanding markets for our producers than H.R. 2646,” it said.

Many House members found the administration statement to be ill-informed. “I was dismayed and disappointed by the statement of administration policy,” says Mike Simpson, R-Idaho.

“To say I'm disappointed with the administration position is the understatement of the day,” said Stenholm. “To come in the day before, stating your position is not helpful. You haven't read our bill. Where were you when we asked?”

The statement said the administration believes the bill encourages overproduction while prices are low, fails to help farmers most in need, jeopardizes critical markets abroad, and boosts federal spending in time of uncertainty.

“We have one year to work together in a bipartisan manner to develop future farm policies before the current farm bill expires,” said Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman in a statement. “We can do so in a thoughtful and deliberative manner, just as was done this summer in providing an additional $5.5 billion in assistance to farmers.”

Combest says the administration failed to take advantage of opportunities to state its views as the House Ag Committee developed the bill. “Neither the secretary nor anyone from her agency has come to talk with us. We hope to engage with the administration. We would very much like to engage them and toss the ball into their court and say if you don't like this, what do you like?”

The House measure had other critics, as well. In an editorial published on the first of two days of deliberation on the bill, The Wall Street Journal ridiculed the House agriculture leadership for speaking of it in terms of national security. The piece particularly derided the peanut and sugar programs.

“We eat as much Skippy as the next guy, but somehow we'd prefer a bit more firepower in the fight against Osama bin Laden,” the editorial, titled “Nuts to You,” said.

‘Hand in hand’

Most House members disagreed. “Farm security and the nation's security go hand in hand,” says Ronnie Shows, D-Miss.

On the House floor, the bill's biggest threat came from an amendment proposed by urban and environmentalist interests that would have expanded idled acres and switched $19 billion from spending on cotton and grains to conservation. The proposal was defeated, 226 to 200. Combest threatened to withdraw the bill if that amendment passed.

H.R. 2646 already increases conservation expenditures nearly 80 percent more than the 1996 law, Stenholm notes. “This is the greenest farm bill ever,” he said.

An amendment to reduce cane sugar price supports 1 cent per pound and beet sugar 1.3 cents, proposed by Dan Miller, R-Fla., a perennial opponent of the sugar program, failed by a 239-177 vote.

Catfish farmers got good news with passage of an amendment by Chip Pickering, R-Miss., to stop imported Vietnamese basa and bacourti fish from being marketing in the U.S. as catfish. He says some of the imported fish had been sold as “Delta Fresh” and “Cajun Delight”, with as much as 1 million pounds a month entering the U.S.

“This is a big victory for America's catfish farmers and all consumers,” Pickering noted.

“My father was one of the pioneers in the catfish industry, and I think he would be disappointed to see us allowing basa to enter the country labeled as catfish,” said Marion Berry, D-Ark. “They're two completely different fish. There's no way they can claim to be Delta catfish. They're produced in cages in the Mekong River, one of the most polluted rivers in the world. The price differential has made it so our producers are no longer profitable. We should not allow misleading labeling to continue.”

Dairy debate

A spirited debate about dairy compacts took up a large chunk of the House's time considering the bill. The Northeast Dairy Compact expired Sept. 30. A proposal to extend it was found to be not germane, falling under the jurisdiction of the House Judiciary Committee, a decision that also sparked considerable debate.

Next came an amendment offered by Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., to create a national voluntary counter-cyclical dairy program, extending the compact idea to any states wanting to join. The House ag leadership found that to be unworkable on a national basis, and the amendment was defeated 224 to 194.

After two long days of consideration, with the vote itself coming at noon on the third day, the House ag leaders sent the bill to the Senate with a sense of urgency. Arkansas' Marion Berry may have said it best: “Farm programs are not designed to protect large farmers or small farmers or to be social programs. They're to make sure this country has a secure supply of food and fiber.”

e-mail: chjohnson@primediabusiness.com