Having a week earlier promised that Congress was preparing “a final range” of funding for the farm bill (see http://deltafarmpress.com/farmbill/harkin-negotiations-0305/), at a March 6 press conference Senate Agriculture chairman Tom Harkin announced a figure of $10 billion above baseline had been agreed upon.

“While we’d, of course, prefer to move quickly, we are moving forward without a lot of fanfair,” said the Iowa Democrat. “I believe our prospects are getting better for completing the new farm bill.”

Regarding new funding for the bill, “not all the edges are nailed down, but I’m convinced a deal is within our reach. Support is coalescing around a figure of $10 billion in new funding above baseline. This is the figure the Senate Finance and House Ways and Means committees are working to secure. Even the (Bush) administration has indicated it could go as high as $10 billion in new funding.”

Since it appears to be a large cut in what the Senate farm bill originally requested, the $10 billion figure is actually a bit misleading.

“I don’t think (the $10 billion) is a heck of a lot less than what was in the Senate bill. Keep in mind, there’s another $5 billion in internal scrubbing … and about $3 billion in timing shifts. That brings us up to about $19 billion.

To adhere to the $10 billion will any needed cuts to programs be proportional?

“There may be some more internal scrubbing. So, yes, there may be some programs that get a bit less. What they are, I don’t know. At (the initial laydown on March 6), we’ll take everyone’s temperature on this.”

The laydown “has to do with funding the different areas and trying to reach some overall agreements on those lines. After that, we’ll get down to the policy differences. But I don’t think they’re insurmountable.”

To get a deal done, Harkin said, the White House still needed to lift its dragging heels a bit more. “To enact a new farm bill, we need true cooperation and partnership from the (Bush) administration rather than veto threats and funding sources that are non-starters.”

Still, using the $10 billion figure, “we’re moving forward. I’m consulting with Senate and House conferees so we can erect the framework of a bill using the $10 billion in new funding along with budget offsets and policy choices we have available within our own farm bill budget.”

The crafting of a new farm bill “isn’t an easy undertaking as you’ve seen. Yet, I’m hopeful with continued bipartisan … cooperation we can craft a bill with strong farm income protection, critical investments and food assistance, conservation, renewable energy and rural development.”

Asked about the major policy disagreements between the House and Senate, Harkin admitted some differences in approaches to energy and conservation. The target rates and loan rates are also a bit different and the Senate version has a larger disaster provision.

Harkin’s belief on the best way to pay for a disaster program is also out of step with others. “I don’t think it’s the best policy to put a disaster program in on baseline. But I recognize it’s important to other members, so I’m supporting the Senate position….

“I’m insistent that language be (included) that would provide for a speedier outlay of monies if the president declares a disaster area. No more of this three-year (wait for a check). I want to get (payments) out within 12 months.

There will be funds for disaster in (the bill). How much it will be, I just don’t know.”

Harkin was then informed USDA Deputy Secretary Chuck Connor had just claimed funding wasn’t the real hold up in farm bill negotiations. The real problem, Connor claimed, is that Congress isn’t moving fast enough to deal with disagreements over reforms the Bush administration desires.

Connor, said Harkin, “has not conveyed that to me. I don’t know what he’s talking about. Sorry to be so abrupt, but I don’t. We’ve been talking about these reforms all along and we know what the parameters are. We’ll work them out….

“I think we’ll have reforms — maybe not everything the (Bush) administration wants…. But these bills are always compromises and that’s what we must recognize.”

With a mid-March Easter break facing Congress, House Agriculture Committee chairman Collin Peterson has said the 2002 farm bill might be extended until April 15. Congress could return with the bill’s framework in place and then finish the difficult legislation by mid-April. Does Harkin agree with that timeline?

“It’s a possibility, although if you extend it by another month people will just kick the ball down the field and decisions aren’t made.... We may have to (do an extension) in the end. But we’d just be in the same position we are right now. Unless we’re under deadline, people just don’t make decisions around here.

“It may come to that. It’s not my preference, I can tell you that.”

Harkin would prefer the farm bill to be “wrapped up” before March 14. At a minimum “we should at least get the principles signed off on so, when we return from break, we aren’t rehashing everything again.”

More specifically, before the break Harkin wants “an agreement on allocation of titles and even some subsets of those titles as to where the funding goes and how much we agree upon for certain bill items. We need to have an agreement on that before we leave next week. We won’t come back and revisit that.”

While unwilling to definitively say direct payments would be phased out in the new farm bill’s ninth year, Harkin did allow that vein is still being mined. “We will have some timing shifts. Whether that is one or not, I don’t know. But rest assured there will be timing shifts — we have to.

“We don’t know what’s going to happen with direct payments, right now. I’ve taken the position all along that direct payments shouldn’t be sacrosanct. With all the high prices farmers are getting this year, I think direct payments are doggone hard to justify — better if we had some kind of counter-cyclical thing.

“But others feel differently so we must reach an agreement. I’m not one to say we can’t touch direct payments — and I’m not alone. There are quite a few who feel that way.”

e-mail: dbennett@farmpress.com