The national debt is projected to reach $7.8 trillion this fiscal year, but the federal government continues to spend money on projects such as a $248-million study of the icy moons of Jupiter.

Rep. Henry Cuellar, D-Texas, doesn't understand why the government is shelling out that kind of money for what he clearly considers to be frivolous research when it's is also planning to cut farm program spending by at least $3.7 billion over the next five years.

Cuellar, a late addition to the program at the recent Beltwide Cotton Conferences in San Antonio, says the federal government has several areas it could cut spending — including excessive payments to Medicare practitioners — before it reduces funding for agriculture.

“When we started the Iraq war, we went in and took over one of Saddam's palaces,” he said. “Now I've been to Iraq, and I've seen some of the palaces. Saddam didn't take care of his people, but he took good care of himself.”

Cuellar said the U.S. government took the palace and spent $100 million rehabbing the buildings for a new location for the U.S. Embassy.

“First of all, $100 million put on top of a palace is a lot of money to begin with,” he said. “But we had a provision in the supplemental appropriations bill to spend another $558 million for a new compound for a new U.S. embassy that was taken out in the House.

“Now if you think about that, that's $558 million for the embassy and $248 million to study the icy moons of Jupiter. Imagine if you could take that money and give it to agriculture or use it to reduce the national debt.”

Huge savings possible

Cuellar, a member of the House Budget Committee, says recent studies indicate the federal government could save tens of billions of dollars a year if it cracked down on excessive payments in the Medicare program. Changes in the prices the federal government pays for prescription drugs could produce savings, he said.

“I'm all for reducing the federal deficit,” said Cuellar. “Figures show that 40 percent of the national debt of $7.8 trillion is owned by foreign countries such as China and Japan. How would you feel if you had a loan and 40 percent of it was held by your competitors?”

In his budget proposal last year, President Bush proposed to reduce agricultural spending by $7 billion. Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman Saxby Chambliss was able to persuade the Senate Budget Committee to reduce that figure to $3 billion.

“President Bush was wrong,” said Cuellar. “We should not be focusing on cutting agriculture spending when we have these other areas that are much more deserving of reductions.”

So how should the United States reduce the federal deficit, Cuellar asked.

“Do you reduce it on the back of an industry like agriculture that, in my opinion, has done a great job of becoming more productive and more efficient and accounts for less than 1 percent of the total budget?

“So are you going to focus the reductions on an industry that has sacrificed for many years? I don't think so, especially when there are so many other areas we could look at for savings.”

Work with congress

Cuellar said that's why farmers must spend more time educating and working with members of Congress to help them understand issues such as farm programs and Medicare and prescription drugs.

“And you can't wait until the day of an important vote and call your congressman to express an opinion,” he said. “John Maguire and your staff in Washington do a great job of representing you and your industry, but they can't do it alone. You have to pitch in and help spread the words about issues that involve you.”

One of those issues, he said, is immigration reform.

Cuellar, a native of Laredo, Texas, said the recent legislation taken up by the House “just deals with border security. It does nothing to address other issues such as immigration reform.”

If the House bill becomes law, he said, overnight the estimated 11 million undocumented aliens in the United States would become felons. That means that anyone who associated with them — such as employers — would also be subject to criminal penalties.

“President Bush has been pushing for a guest worker bill, while Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., and Congressman Gutierrez and myself have been seeking legislation that would provide a pathway to citizenship,” he noted.

“As this bill passes over to the Senate, I hope we can have a serious debate on immigration reform that will regulate the number of individuals entering the United States but also meet the needs for labor that many employers, including farmers, obviously have.”

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