Congress moved a step closer to reopening the 2002 farm bill by narrowly approving a 2006-10 budget resolution calling for a $35-billion reduction in mandatory government spending and $70 billion in tax cuts. The resolution requires the House and Senate agriculture committees to reduce ag spending by $3 billion over five years and by $173 million in fiscal 2006.

The $3 billion is closer to the Senate’s initial $2.8 billion in cuts than the $5.28 billion in the House version of the budget resolution. But Democrats noted that it also accounts for 8.5 percent of the $35-billion reduction while ag spending represents less than 1 percent of the federal budget.

Congressional leaders were pushing members of a budget resolution conference to agree to avoid a repeat of fiscal 2005 when Congress did not pass a budget plan. Another failure could have required 60-vote majorities in the Senate for 2006 reconciliation bills.

“Agriculture Committee senators can now work with a more realistic budget amount to reduce spending equitably among the commodity support, conservation and nutrition programs,” said Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman Saxby Chambliss.

Chambliss noted that the president’s proposal of $7 billion to $9 billion in farm spending cuts would have required reductions that would have jeopardized farm programs. “Now our committee can move forward to consider legislative options in making deficit reduction cuts of $3 billion, while being mindful of farmers, soil and water conservation plans and families needing food aid.”

Democrats said the resolution will be more harmful to agriculture and nutrition programs than it seems.

“The president said all areas of government must make tough budget decisions to control federal spending,” said Rep. Collin Peterson, ranking Democrat on the House Agriculture Committee. “But this is not the first time agriculture has been asked to make large cuts.”

He said farm bill programs were cut by $650 million in fiscal 2004 and by $1.3 billion in fiscal 2005. To meet the 2006 budget requirements, the agricultural appropriations bill will have to be cut another $1.4 billion on top of last year’s $1.3 billion for a total of $2.7 billion.

“This budget resolution demands we cut farm bill spending through appropriations and reconciliation by nearly $6 billion over five years,” said Peterson. “These cuts are unfair when you consider the 2002 farm bill has cost $15 billion less than anticipated. American farmers are doing their part to control federal spending.

“What’s more, the cuts are unnecessary because the Congressional Budget Office shows the federal deficit declining by more than 50 percent from 2004 to 2009 if we do nothing. At the end of the day, these cuts are part of a budget resolution that does not reduce the deficit, but increases it by $206 billion over five years.”

That’s a lot of numbers being tossed around. Hopefully, farmers and their representatives can sort through the haze and pass legislation that does a minimum of damage to the farm economy.

e-mail: flaws@primediabusiness.com