If I didn’t know any better, I would say government officials must have a school where they learn how not to answer questions from reporters. I suspect several editors may have shared that thought as they listened to Agriculture Secretary Ed Schafer during a (May 9) news conference on the 2008 farm bill conference report.

Here’s a question I posed to Schafer: “In a press conference yesterday, Sen. Blanche Lincoln (of Arkansas) said the administration had been changing its position on the farm bill each time they had come back with a different position, and they weren’t sure the president was serious about signing the farm bill. Could you comment on that?

Schafer: “Well, you know, I think she’s right. We started out at $200,000 adjusted gross income, and because of some of Blanche’s concern with high value crops and rice and corn and some things in her state, we did change our position; we went to $500,000 adjusted gross income.

“We had started out at $4.5 billion over baseline spending, and because of conversations with a lot of people on the Hill we moved it to $6 billion. And then, after that, while we didn’t ever commit to the $10 billion, we presented Congress with a pathway to get to $10 billion including putting $20 billion worth of funding sources on the table so they could carve them out and find $10 billion to use.”

The question could have been phrased better, but you have to have been on another planet in recent weeks not to marvel at how deftly Schafer dodged the issue of whether the president has ever been serious about signing a farm bill.

The premise of the question isn’t original to me. Last November, House Agriculture Committee Chairman Collin Peterson asked if the administration’s repeated veto threats weren’t part of a plan to keep the president from having to reject a politically popular farm bill (at least in farm states).

Peterson and Senate Agriculture Committee Chair Tom Harkin and Budget Chairman Kent Conrad have complained that each time they moved closer to the White House position on a farm bill issue, administration representatives have raised the bar.

“At first all we heard was that we had to put more ‘reform’ in the farm bill, so we put in the most payment limit reform since the 1949 Act,” said Conrad. “Then we were told we were spending too much, so we reduced the commodity title spending by $1.7 billion. Nothing seemed to satisfy them.”

Schafer spent most of his time trashing a farm bill that farm groups, 79 senators and a sizable majority of House members say is the best can be done this time. That time could have been better used defending American agriculture against the incessant media attacks on farmers for enjoying the highest grain prices they’ve seen in 30 years. Maybe the secretary will turn his attention to that when the farm bill debate is finished.

e-mail: flaws@farmpress.com