Memo to all those groups who say they want to make even more changes to the 2008 farm bill when a House-Senate farm bill conference committee convenes later this month: Forget it.
The president of the nation’s largest farm organization says producers have already made more compromises to the Food and Energy Security Act of 2007 than they wanted and “are not really interested in going any further.
“We hope the conference committee reports out a farm bill we can accept,” said Bob Stallman, the American Farm Bureau Federation president and a farmer from Texas. “I hope the Bush administration will sign the bill and we can move forward with implementation.”
Speaking at a news conference at the opening of AFBF’s 89th annual convention, Stallman said the House- and Senate-approved farm bills awaiting consolidation “represent significant reform.” This year’s meeting is being held in New Orleans.
Stallman acknowledged that Acting Agriculture Secretary Chuck Conner and other administration officials have criticized both versions of the farm bill with Conner singling out the Senate bill for “raising taxes” and failing to deliver significant reforms on payment limits and target prices and loan rates.
The administration “has issued guidelines about what would constitute an acceptable bill the president could sign,” including changing the funding structure of the legislation. Stallman called Conner’s threat of a veto of the legislation “disappointing.”
“I have talked to a lot of farmers, and I can tell you they don’t really care whether something is a budget gimmick, or closing a loophole, or providing a tax credit,” he noted. “They don’t really care about all the back and forth from Democrats and Republicans on those issues. What our members care about is: Are we going to have a farm bill and when are we going to know what the rules are so we can plan our planting operation?”
With spring planting for summer crops just weeks away in some portions of the South, Stallman said farmers need to have answers soon. He said Farm Bureau members have continued to voice strong support for a farm bill that includes a “three-legged” economic safety net for farmers in the form of direct payments, counter-cyclical support and marketing loans.
“The House and Senate farm bills both meet Farm Bureau’s need to continue that safety net,” Stallman said. “It will take a compromise from all parties to get it done, but we feel we have compromised a great deal from our organization’s original proposal.”
Another speaker warned that failure by Congress to act on the farm bill soon could put farmers at the end of a long list of policy issues that must be addressed in 2008. Among those: Social Security, health care costs and tax cuts.
“Get a farm bill done now,” said Jim Wiesemeyer, vice president of policy and trade issues for Informa Economics Inc., adding that a shrinking budget baseline and a growing national deficit also pose threats.
Wiesemeyer, pointing out that Bush has made good on previous veto threats, said that with tax increases off the table, one of the critical issues that lawmakers will have to compromise on in a final bill is how to pay for it.
Predicting across-the-board budget cuts, Congress will have to choose where to trim, he said. Possible reductions could be in store for direct payments, counter-cyclical payments, crop insurance and a disaster program, while programs related to nutrition, conservation, specialty crops and energy could get a boost.
In addition, Wiesemeyer touched on a handful of issues that won’t have direct bearing on the farm bill, but will certainly be getting attention, both inside the Beltway and in farm country.
Among them are the likely explosion of advanced biofuels – those beyond corn ethanol and biodiesel – and future World Trade Organization challenges to U.S. farm programs, which he predicted are sure to come.
Rising food prices could also begin capturing public attention. “You will hear from government analysts about why food prices are going up,” Wiesemeyer said. “Food price inflation will become an increasing issue. Pressure for policy change will grow with every uptick on the commodity chart.”