A letter from Deputy Agriculture Secretary Charles Conner reminded me of a quote attributed to the scoundrel who was ridden out of town on a rail: “If it wasn’t for the honor of it, I would just as soon have skipped the whole thing.”

No reporter likes having his work criticized, especially by the No. 2 official at USDA, but I must admit I felt a little better after listening to Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman Tom Harkin’s telephone briefing the other day.

In May, Conner wrote a letter to the editor taking us to task for a column on the Bush administration’s claim that its farm bill proposal would deliver $5 billion more in farm program benefits while saving $10 billion. The column called the plan “voodoo economics.”

Conner said the administration’s approach was preferable to Congress’ use of reserve funds, which, he said, essentially were a checking account with a zero balance that would require funding outside of agriculture.

House leaders found those funds in a tax code provision that allows foreign-owned corporations to transfer U.S. earnings to countries with lower tax rates. They also earmarked oil royalties that were under-collected in the 1990s for renewable energy programs.

Conner’s boss, Secretary Mike Johanns, and House Republicans labeled the move a tax increase, and Johanns said he would recommend President Bush veto the House-passed farm bill.

In his press briefing July 31, Harkin, asked if the Senate version of the new farm bill would be “different enough” to avoid a similar threat, said he thought Johanns’ comments were ill-considered.

“If this veto threat is based on the fact that we’re over the baseline, the administration’s bill is over baseline,” he said. “I mean it’s just a question of how much over baseline. They don’t come into this with clean hands, you know.”

Asked about the secretary’s claims that the $5 billion increase in the administration farm bill would be offset by savings in the out years, Harkin said: “Well, they’ve never said where they got that money. It’s just sort of there, but they’ve never said where they were going to get it. If they have some specifics, they should tell us what they are.”

To be fair, Conner’s letter said “anyone who wants to know how we propose to accomplish the additional spending can look to the back of our farm bill proposal book and see it clearly laid out in black and white.”

The latter lists a number of proposals, including a $4.5 billion reduction in marketing assistance loans, a $1.5 billion cut in food stamps (by streamlining the program) and a $2.45 billion reduction in crop insurance spending.

Part of the marketing loan savings would come from reducing the cotton loan rate from 52 cents to 45 cents a pound, a move many lenders say would decimate the cotton economy in the South. That may help explain why it’s in the back of the book.

e-mail: flaws@farmpress.com