The Farm Bill: When?

It depends on who you talk to and what they're talking about.

The 2008 Farm Bill may not be the latest one to arrive at the farm gate. But it'll be the first to be put to lyrics, titled "The Farm Bill Blues", and played to rock music.

That was the promise made yesterday by the song's author, lead guitarist Collin Peterson, alias chairman of the House Ag Committee, D-Minn. He and Rep. Kenny Hulshof, R-Mo., and member of the House Ways and Means Committee, "let go" their off-duty musical talents with a rock band suitably named "The Second Amendments". And, both committees have key roles in getting the new Farm Bill to President Bush for signing.

Peterson told ag journalists that most of the Farm Bill framework will be finished this week. But he stopped short of saying the legislation would be finished and headed to the President by the April 18 deadline.

"We don't know what the 'offsets' (funds taken from other budget areas) will be. And we won't move ahead until we know. It won't take long to tie up, if we get the offsets."

But Peterson acknowledged that the conference committees working on the Farm Bill won't have the $10 billion above the budget base line that's been quoted" to make up the difference between House and Senate versions.

The Senate Budget and House Ways and Means committees have yet to resolve this and other issues – direct payments, the disaster program and tax cuts, to name a few – before the Farm Bill can be wrapped up. "Charlie Rangel, (D-N.Y. and Ways and Means chair) doesn't have to give us $10 billion." Ultimately, Rangel controls the purse strings and when the Farm Bill gets through the gate.

Just a few days longer

Saxby Chabliss, R-Ga., ranking Republican of the Senate Agriculture Committee, said, "Under the best scenario, we can't make the April 18 deadline. But we intend to show major progress with all but a few details left. We'll need a few days more to conclude it."

This Farm Bill has been "extremely frustrating and extremely difficult to deal with in light of the tight budget and the disaster payment and tax credit provisions," he added. "The permanent disaster package has survived, thus far."

In a recent development, Senate Agriculture Committee chairman Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, has conceded Senate leadership on the Farm Bill to Budget Committee chairman Ken Conrad, D-N.D. "We're now to the point that my leadership isn't needed to sit around the table and work out the tax packages. If agreements can be reached this week, finalizing the Farm Bill may go a couple days after the 18th," he concurs.

Conrad reported another potential problem: 'If the Appropriations Committees finish their work on the budget before the Farm Bill is completed, it'll complicate base line funding for agriculture." He added that it didn't help that the 2002 Farm Bill spent $17 billion less than appropriated, which lowered the base line for this Farm Bill.

"We inherited a base line tied to what food and everything else used to cost," he added. "We're not going to get the resources to provide the same level of benefit for every need. This time around, you'll have to be a living, breathing farmer to get a payment. No hiding behind paper."

"We have increased demand for domestic aid and food and nutrition programs (which consume 67% of the Farm Bill budget). We have enormous pressures around here for many needs. U.S. aid to other countries can't just keep increasing. It's reality time," stresses Conrad.

Urban pressures rising

Charles Rangel's name came up numerous times during the meeting. As chairman of House Ways and Means, the New York City congressman has already served notice to Farm Bill negotiators that he would prefer extending the 2002 Farm Bill for another year. He and all of Congress are hearing the rising rancor over high food prices, rapidly rising food stamps needs and food bank shortages.

A one-year extension, according to one analyst, would give Congress time to redirect direct commodity program payments away from farmers "enjoying boom times", and increase funds for 2008 nutrition and conservation programs.

If that's the case, "The Farm Bill Blues" may get yet another verse.

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