Farm Bill passes the House

Associate Editor

Washington, D.C. The House approved a major expansion of federal
farm supports two weeks ago, defying the White House and
repudiating the free-market policy enacted by Republicans in
1996.

The bill passed, however, without an amendment that would have
significantly increased funding for conservation programs,
including the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) and the Wetlands
Reserve Program (WRP).

Michigan Rep. John Dingell (D-Dearborn) was one of the sponsors
of the amendment.

“In the 1930s, nearly 70 percent of federal support for
agriculture was for conservation,” Dingell said, “but now, with
billions of dollars on the line, that support has declined to less
than 10 percent. The Compromise for Conservation’ amendment that I
offered would have restored balance to our nation’s farm
policy.”

The Bush administration has stopped short of threatening a veto
of the bill, but said the cash in the $170 billion, 10-year package
will benefit big farms that need it the least, while promoting more
price-depressing surpluses of crops.

Authors of the legislation, approved 291-120, say the existing
financial safety net for farmers has proved inadequate.

“The 1996 farm bill is a failure,” said Texas Rep. Charles
Stenholm, senior Democrat on the House Agriculture Committee.

The “Freedom to Farm” law was supposed to wean farmers from
government supports, but when grain prices collapsed in 1998,
lawmakers responded with a series of multi-billion dollar bailouts
that discouraged growers from cutting production.

Under the bill, Conservation spending would grow by $16 billion,
or about 75 percent over current programs, with much of those
benefits going to livestock operations and fruit and vegetable
growers.

An amendment that would’ve taken land out of production, and
paid farmers to create better habitat, was defeated 226-200 the day
before the farm bill passed. The amendment sought to expand
“set-aside” programs to levels encouraged by many conservation
groups. The cap for CRP, under the amendment, would have increased
to 45 million acres. Instead, it increases from about 36 million
acres to about 39 million.

An additional 150,000 acres can be enrolled in WRP, instead of
the 250,000 acres the amendment would’ve authorized.

The Wildlife Habitat Incentives Program (WHIP) will be eligible
for $25 million annually. Under the proposed amendment WHIP funding
would have began at $200 million and eventually increased to $500
million annually.

The final program for which the conservation groups lobbied was
the Grassland Reserve Program, a new conservation program this
year. The amendment would’ve allowed 3 million acres of set-aside
for the program. Instead, the program will be limited to 2 million
acres.

The Senate Agriculture Committee is expected to start work on
its version of the bill later this month.

“This now is the real news, that the Senate has indicated it may
move on this in a short time frame,” said Dave Nomsen, of Pheasants
Forever. “I think there’s a better than 50-50 chance of something
coming from them this year.”

The administration unsuccessfully appealed to the House to delay
work on the legislation, saying it was too soon after the Sept. 11
attacks to commit as much as $170 billion to farm programs. By
increasing subsidies, the bill also would undermine U.S. efforts to
lower foreign trade barriers, the White House says.

The administration wants more money put into conservation
programs that reward farmers for cutting back on runoff of
fertilizer and animal waste.

With the federal budget surplus vanishing, farm lobbyists are
pushing the Senate to work as quickly as possible. The House bill
uses $73.5 billion in surplus funds that were set aside in a
congressional budget agreement this spring before the economy went
sour.

The Senate committee’s chairman, Iowa Democrat Tom Harkin, wants
to steer more money into conservation programs, but his home state
is the biggest beneficiary of existing program.

“The battle now moves to the Senate, and I am hopeful that we
will be able to include a strong conservation title and do the
right thing for wildlife,” Dingell said.

Nomsen said constituents should contact their senators soon.
Sen. Herb Kohl may be reached at (202) 224-5653 or (414) 297-4451
or (800) 247-5645. Sen. Russ Feingold may be reached at (202)
224-5323 or (414) 276-7282, or senator@feingold.senate.gov

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