The Senate passed the deficit reduction omnibus reconciliation bill after Vice President Dick Cheney cut short a trip to the Middle East to return to Washington and cast the deciding vote.

The action, which wrapped up nearly a year of work by House and Senate committees, occurred during a flurry of days-before-Christmas votes on bills that were more remarkable for what they didn't do for farmers than for what they accomplished.

The deficit reduction omnibus reconciliation the Senate passed by a 51-50 vote on Dec. 21, for example, did not contain language that would have extended the commodity programs in the 2002 farm bill until 2011. (The current farm bill is scheduled to expire in 2007.)

Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman Saxby Chambliss fought for the extension, which was in the Senate-passed bill, in the omnibus reconciliation conference report. But House Agriculture Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte and White House representatives opposed it along with Senate conferee Richard Lugar, R-Ind.

Republican leaders in the Senate and House also refused requests to include a disaster assistance bill in the fiscal 2006 defense appropriations bill, opting instead to offer an amendment that would authorize drilling for oil in the Alaska National Wildlife Refuge.

Chambliss voted for the deficit reduction omnibus reconciliation conference report in the Senate but indicated he was still unhappy with the agriculture provisions of the measure.

“These five-year cuts reduce government's overall deficit and borrowing, but, in agriculture, I have stated throughout this reconciliation process my ultimate goal was that all components of the farm bill — commodities, conservation and nutrition — are treated fairly,” he said. “This package does not accomplish that goal.”

The Georgia Republican said he was pleased that the Senate position of no reduction for food stamps was included in the conference report, but the “continued insistence by House leadership, the White House and USDA of no extension of any provision in the commodity title of the farm bill has resulted in a package that contains obvious inequities.”

The Senate reconciliation bill, he said, would have preserved the 2007 farm bill baseline options for commodity crops with temporary cuts over multiple years with all crops, conservation, research and rural development taking a fair share.

“These options, along with the extension of the farm bill, would have protected the baseline and provided security for farmers in future years,” he noted. “However, House leadership insisted on concentrating temporary cuts deeply in the 2006 crop year only, rather than extend commodity baseline options, as with conservation.

“I could not agree to impose such a heavy financial burden that hit producers still reeling from a season of crop loss and doubled costs of irrigation, fertilizer and diesel. From Friday throughout the weekend, House leadership rejected Senate alternatives, driving the House and Senate to drop commodity reductions.”

As a result, the deficit reduction package could present problems to farmers down the road. That's because the “short-term reprieve” from cutting crop payments means commodities will not be protected like conservation during reauthorization of the farm bill.

“This will be a big problem for farmers as we begin to write the farm bill in 2007,” he said. “The constant critics of agriculture programs will blame farmers for escaping their share of deficit reduction just as commodity support programs are about to be considered for reauthorization in the 2007 farm bill.”

Before the ink was dry on the conference report, environmental groups were already ballyhooing House leaders' refusal to extend the commodity program provisions of the 2002 farm bill.

“Extending most farm subsidies but allowing other food and farm programs to expire in 2007 would have been bad for farmers, bad for trade and bad for the environment,” said Scott Faber of Environmental Defense. “But for the leadership of the White House, Speaker Hastert and Chairman Goodlatte, farmers would have been forced to wait five years for the chance to reform farm programs to help more farmers and the environment.”

Although both houses of Congress have passed the bill, Congress did not finish its work on the deficit reduction omnibus reconciliation, which would make total spending cuts of $39.7 billion.

The House must now agree to a Medicaid amendment offered by Sen. Kent Conrad, D-N.D. Because the House had already adjourned for the holidays, Senate leaders were not sure when the House would vote on the bill and send it to the president. None of the language objected to by Conrad applies to agriculture.

Besides not extending commodity programs, the agriculture section of the reconciliation package includes:

  • No across-the-board cuts for commodity programs.
  • Advance direct payments will be reduced to 40 percent for the 2006 crop year and further reduced to 22 percent in crop year 2007.
  • Termination of cotton's Step 2 program on Aug. 1, 2006.
  • Extension of the MILC dairy support program, which adds $998 million.
  • Extension of the Environmental Quality Incentives Program to 2010 with funds reduced by $1.27 billion in fiscal years 2007 through 2009 and $1.3 billion in fiscal 2010.
  • Extension of the Conservation Security Program to 2011 with funds capped at $1.954 billion between fiscal 2006 through fiscal 2010 and $5.65 billion between fiscal 2006 through fiscal 2015.
  • Cancellation of funds available for the Watershed Rehabilitation Program prior to Oct. 1, 2006.

e-mail: flaws@primediabusiness.com