The secretary’s statement in a letter to Rep. Larry Combest, chairman of the House-Senate farm bill conference committee, came after the Congressional Budget Office confirmed that it had underestimated the potential cost of the Senate farm bill by $6.3 billion.

Sen. Tom Harkin, chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee and principal author of the Senate farm bill, has asked the House and Senate Budget Committees to increase the 2003 farm bill’s additional funding for farm programs to $79.5 to cover the higher cost of the Senate bill, S-1731.

“The administration believes that the new farm bill must honor the limits of the Congressional Budget Resolution,” Veneman said. “Consistent with this Resolution, Congress should not pass a farm bill that exceeds $73.5 billion (in additional funding). We will strongly oppose any effort by the conferees to ignore the Congress’ own spending limits.”

Repeating President Bush’s earlier statement that he wants a true, 10-year farm bill, Veneman said the administration continues to object to the manner in which the Senate bill allocates its funding.

“The Senate-passed bill frontloads the 10-year funding into the first five years, placing the future of farm programs in jeopardy for the second five years,” she said. “The Senate bill also sharply reduces or terminates funding for roughly 15 rural, conservation and commodity programs after 2006 in order to compensate for this ill-advised frontloading.

“We will strongly oppose any frontloaded farm bill that allocates more than $36.8 billion in the first five years.”

She said the administration also supports:

  • A farm bill that helps farmers without encouraging overproduction. “The administration continues to support marketing loan rates — an existing counter-cyclical program — that are equivalent to those contained in the House bill,” Veneman said.
  • A strong, reliable safety net. “The House bill’s increased funding for fixed decoupled payments ensures farmers a consistent, predictable income safety net while maintaining market-oriented planting flexibility.”
  • Additional risk management tools to help non-program crop producers and farm savings accounts to complement traditional farm support programs. “We urge the expansion of the Senate’s farm savings account pilot program in order to provide a broader base of assistance without causing planting and marketing distortions,” she noted.
  • A farm bill that promotes increased trade. “We have strongly urged that the new farm bill must support trade and be consistent with our international obligations,” Veneman said. “The House bill’s fixed decoupled payments are “green box” and meet our trade obligations, while Senate provisions increase the likelihood of U.S. non-compliance.
  • “Both the House and the Senate have worked hard to include “circuit breaker” provisions to help ensure compliance with our WTO obligations. The USDA has suggested some modifications to the Senate’s language, which we ask the Conferees to consider.”

  • Continuation of existing laws regulating the sale of food and medicines to Cuba. “We oppose repeal of the prohibition on private financing by U.S. persons of sales of agricultural commodities to Cuba.”
  • Opposition to country of origin labeling. “Provisions in both bills potentially violate international trade agreements, raise costs for consumers, particularly low-income Americans, and does nothing for food safety,” the secretary said.
  • A strong conservation title that bolsters working land stewardship, supplements farmers’ and ranchers’ income, improves water quality, provides wildlife habitat, conserves water and protects open space. “We have made a particular commitment to conservation programs for working lands, such as EQIP and a new Grasslands Reserve Program,” she said.

    “We also support growth in established conservation programs such as CRP, WRP, FPP and WHIP. However, we are concerned that the Senate’s new Conservation Security Program commits to open-ended spending risking future funding for these established programs, without assuring cost effective environmental benefits. We suggest a pilot approach to develop tools for measuring benefits and establish justifiable payment rates.

The secretary said the administration commends the Senate for including a provision in its bill making legal aliens living in the U.S. for at least five years eligible for food stamps.

“This is a key component of the President’s budget, and we encourage the conferees to include it in the final bill,” she said, adding the administration has also proposed an improved quality control system that we believe, represents an effective and balanced approach to ensuring payment accuracy in the Food Stamp Program.

“Achieving a solid farm bill to assist farmers and ranchers in challenging times is of top priority for the administration,” she said. “The administration looks forward to working with you toward an expeditious conclusion to the conference and a bipartisan farm bill that will best help America’s producers in the coming years.”

e-mail: flaws@primediabusiness.com