The U.S. House and Senate returned to work on Wednesday, and while there will be no shortage of issues to address, the Senate's deadlock over the Farm Bill will be among the early agenda items.
The Farm Bill debate ended just prior to the holiday break when senators balked at accepting the Democrat's draft bill but defeated all other alternatives, including one that carried the Bush Administration's blessing.
Many agricultural groups want the issue addressed before the government's overall funding abilities run out. Also, the current Farm Bill expires this fall, and agriculture groups are pushing to get a bill in time to cover this year's crops – before they're planted.
But the Farm Bill addresses more than just issues found directly on the farm. It also sets U.S. policy on crop subsidies, export programs, food stamps and agricultural research. That complete package can make the process of moving forward slow and cumbersome.
Among the major debates with this new Farm Bill is how to reweave the farm safety net. Most everyone agrees on higher spending– at issue is the matter of form. The pending Senate bill would increase crop-subsidy outlays by about $5 billion annually. The House version would do the same.
President Bush is expected to meet with Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) to attempt to get the bill moving. However, the two men have divergent views on what the final bill should look like. Harkin's version calls for higher crop supports. Bush doesn't favor that approach.
The White House, sensitive to international trade pact limits, prefers to give growers larger guaranteed annual subsidies, as well as government-contributed savings accounts where growers can save cash for use in hard times. Senators defeated that proposal, 55 to 40, in mid-December on a mostly partisan vote.
Co-author of the plan, Pat Roberts (R-Kan.), says he might try again with a slightly modified version. But Democrats have remained fully supportive of the Harkin bill. "Quite frankly, a lot of this is politics," says Roberts.
Majority Leader Tom Daschle, (D-S.D), says the Senate would address the Farm Bill within the next few days.
Other controversial issues to come up in the Senate Farm Bill debate, include Sen. Paul Wellstone's (D-Minn) proposal to ban packer ownership of hogs and cattle. Dig deeper, and the proposal– if passed– would affect the 83 percent of U.S. market hogs currently sold on pre-arranged contracts with packers. I would also prevent value-added producer cooperative attempts and other related industry efforts. (See www.econ.iastate.edu/faculty/lawrence/ for perspectives from agricultural economists.)
Whatever the Senate finally decides, the provisions will then head into a House and Senate conference committee who will then attempt to continue the process of ironing out the final details. So there's still plenty of jockeying to be done.