Farm bill debate continues

For some farm policy observers, the 2007 farm bill was supposed to mark a new direction in farm legislation. A number of factors — among them, budget constraints, environmental concerns and burgeoning interest in biofuels — were expected to figure prominently into final legislation.

But as earlier farm bills have demonstrated time and again, just because a proposal seems nifty, trendy or even badly needed doesn’t mean it will end up in the final bill.

For now, a key committee has decided to leave the broad contours of farm policy in place, at least for the immediate future. The House Agriculture Subcommittee on General Farm Commodities recently voted for a five-year extension of the 2002 farm bill during a markup session for the commodity title of the 2007 farm bill.

Even so, one economist, while describing the vote as interesting, says it should be regarded as only the first shot in a legislative battle of wits that likely will be played out to the end of the year and possibly even well into the next.

“This could be compared to running something up a flagpole to see how badly it gets shot up,” says Jim Novak, an Alabama Cooperative Extension System economist and Auburn University professor of agricultural economics.

For now, Novak says all bets are off until the Senate weighs into the debate. And much like their counterparts in the House, senators are sending up their share of flags to see which ones will be cheered and which will be shot full of holes.

A key player in the Senate debate, Iowa Democrat Tom Harkin, chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee, has urged Congress to "scale down the $5.2 billion paid annually to U.S. grain, cotton and soybean farmers so that crop subsidies flow where they are needed.”

Along with reducing these direct payments, Harkin also has stated that land no longer producing crops should be ineligible for payments and that crop acreage bases should be updated so that more money could be saved.

There also appears to be some House support for limiting base acreage, with one bill calling for the elimination of any base under 10 acres.

Still, it remains to be seen what provisions will figure in to the next farm bill, Novak says.

The biggest factor in the entire debate and one that has entered discussion for the last 70 plus years of farm legislation is money.

Novak says a lot of the debate seems to be proceeding on a zero-sum basis — what’s available for one program has to come from another — a factor that has tended to stymie more radical thinking and force many legislators to lean toward the status quo.

“We have no end to alternatives, but finding the means of financing them is a problem,” Novak says.

One alternative — one of the alternatives being seriously discussed, according to Novak — is a counter-cycle revenue program, which essentially would function as revenue shortfall payments. But again, it’s an open question whether it will figure into the final bill.

“Program costs will be a critical consideration in the debate,” Novak says.

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