ROBINSONVILLE, Miss. -- In political terms, says Fred Clark, “Next year’s farm bill is light years away.” The Senate isn’t doing anything on the farm bill this year, he notes, and the House is only getting under way with field hearings.

And although there is an assumption that a farm bill will be written in 2007, “It might not happen,” the vice president and general counsel for Cornerstone Government Affairs, Washington, said at the ninth annual Conservation Systems Cotton and Rice Conference at Robinsonville, Miss.

With off-year elections in 2007 and the presidential election in 2008, “there is some talk,” Clark said, “that the current farm bill might just be extended.”

Many factors can influence the progress, or lack of progress, of the legislation, said Clark, who is also Washington counsel for the US Rice Producers Association, one of the sponsors of the conference. “The national economic climate, the federal budget situation, agriculture’s economic situation — all can affect the legislative environment.”

But he said, “It’s a pretty safe bet that between now and next year the federal deficit is not going to go away,” which could make it more difficult to get funding for farm programs.

“It’s something of a truism,” he observed, “that the worse the agricultural economy is, the better the chances of getting a good farm bill.”

The fiscal 2006 budget submitted by President Bush last week included proposed cuts in agriculture,” said Clark, who spent eight years working with the House Agriculture Committee under chairman Kika de la Garza, and has worked on every farm bill since 1985.

“Those cuts are widely perceived as cuts for southern agriculture. They went after payment limits and marketing loans, then cut whatever was left by 5 percent, and then required farmers to buy crop insurance.

“A lot of off-budget items are coming along that will make the reconciliation process even worse,” and could result in “an ugly mess” when the appropriations committees start work.

It’s ironic, Clark said, that most U.S. commodity organizations supported budget reconciliation efforts by Sen. Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga. “They said they were willing to take cuts in farm programs if they were spread over a reasonable number of years and if the programs were extended to accommodate the cuts.”

But, he said, House budget hawks instead came up with “smoke-and-mirror savings,” and the result could be that larger cuts would be required next year.

“A major question overhanging everything is whether the Republicans will still be in charge when the new bill is written, and who will be in charge of the agriculture committees and other key chairmanships. The administration is trying to assert itself as being deeply involved in farm policy, but Congress is pretty jealous of its authority to write legislation.

“We’ll be going into 2007 not knowing who’s going to be on which team — one team that wants the president’s proposals carried out, the other team that’s hell-bent on dismantling them. It’s so bad the Republicans are holding committee meetings and not telling the Democrat members where or when the meetings are being held.”

Additionally, he noted, with many World Trade Organization issues still unresolved, “there is some thinking that it doesn’t make sense to write a farm bill in 2007 — rather, that it would be better to wait until the WTO issues are settled and then write farm legislation accordingly. WTO and trade issues are becoming more determinative of what farm legislation will look like.”

All that could bolster efforts to extend the present farm bill and write a new one in 2009.

Even if no WTO agreement on agriculture is reached, Clark said, changes could still be forced in U.S. farm programs. “Without a framework of rules, other countries could be inspired to file trade complaints against the United States and, if successful, changes in our farm programs could be even more drastic.”

The growing federal budget deficit and the atmosphere of political fear that exists in Washington may also have an impact on what transpires in the legislative arena, Clark said.

“The Congressional Budget Office says the deficit this year will be $350 billion. I hate to use the word ‘dishonest,’ but it’s a budgetary gimmick. It doesn’t include the war in Iraq, funding for FEMA disasters, etc.

“The thing that’s been something of a salvation is that the economy has grown at the same time all these spending increases have taken place. Congress doesn’t budget like you do — they look at only one side of the ledger, spending. They’re proposing $80 billion in tax cuts, which will dwarf the $40 billion they saved.

“It’s all shaping up for a train wreck down the road.”

In Washington these days, Clark said, “Everyone is terrified — more than I can remember. They’re openly worried about losing control because of the president’s low approval rating, concerns over Iraq, and the Abramoff scandal.”

The latter, he said, “reminds me somewhat of the McCarthy era, in the way everyone in both parties is going out of their way to avoid anyone who might have accidentally rubbed shoulders with Abramoff at a cocktail party. But it’s somewhat far-fetched to think that members of Congress, who raise millions of dollars each election cycle, could grant favors for all those contributions.”

The conservation systems conference, which alternates yearly between Texas and Mississippi, is sponsored by Mid-America Farm Publications, Cotton Incorporated, and US Rice Producers Association. Delta Farm Press was media co-sponsor for the event.

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