Indiana senator refuses to give up on farm bill

Even if you don't agree with what he says, you have to admire Sen. Richard Lugar's persistence.

Lugar's farm bill, which would mostly replace farm payments with beefed up crop insurance, was rejected twice — once in the Senate Agriculture Committee and again in the Senate in December.

But Lugar continues to plow ahead, arguing that passing the Senate Agriculture Committee bill or the House bill will be a “serious public policy mistake.”

In his latest broadside, the Indiana Republican elevated his visibility, persuading the New York Times to give him 950 words on its op-ed page to attack the Daschle-Harkin or Senate Agriculture Committee bill.

While the Times is not regular reading for most farmers, it is inside the Beltway in Washington where efforts to pass a new farm bill were expected to pick up steam following president's state of the union address.

Lugar was chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee when Congress passed the Federal Agricultural Improvement and Reform Act in 1996.

Although Southern farmers and their organizations tried to tell him Freedom to Farm was doomed to failure, Lugar and House Republicans rammed the bill through Congress, saying it would mean “farmers would know exactly how much would be spent on agriculture over the next seven years.”

Instead, Congress was forced to appropriate another $72 billion in economic and disaster assistance to keep U.S. agriculture from being swept under by rising surpluses and the resulting low commodity prices.

Shortly after Lugar announced his new farm bill last fall, Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman called it “a thoughtful piece of legislation that was consistent with the president's principles.” But the administration switched its support to the Cochran-Roberts amendment after the Senate rejected the Lugar bill 70-30.

In his op-ed piece, Lugar repeated the warmed-over rhetoric that most farm payments go to a small number of large farming operations in a handful of states. Instead, Lugar would provide every farmer a payment equal to 6 percent of his total farm receipts — whether he needs it or not.

The critics' main concern is Lugar's crop insurance provision that promises farmers would receive 80 percent of an average income taken over the last five years. Most farmers would rather forget their lack of income during that period.

At press-time, it was still too early to predict the outcome of the farm bill in the Senate. Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle of South Dakota and Minority Leader Trent Lott of Mississippi both were saying the bill would have a high priority.

Sen. Thad Cochran, R-Miss., announced he and Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kans., would not re-introduce their amendment during the Senate debate, but would attempt to offer its provisions in the House-Senate conference that will follow Senate passage.

Farmers can hope that Lugar's proposal will continue to be lost in the president and most senators' stated intentions to get real relief to farmers as quickly as possible.

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