Presidential advisers who said the Senate Agriculture Committee's version of the new farm bill should be vetoed because it raises taxes and uses accounting gimmicks should have checked the figures on the administration's farm bill first, Senate Democrats said.

The Democrats, led by Sen. Kent Conrad, D. N.D., blasted the president's “senior advisers” for their comments on the committee bill after the Congressional Budget Office released numbers saying the administration's farm bill would cost $1.7 billion more than the bill now in the Senate.

The exchange came after a week in which Senate leaders attempted to start the long-awaited debate on the Food and Energy Security Act of 2007 only to become bogged down in partisan sniping over what kinds of amendments could be offered to the bill.

“We only have a few days in which to consider this important legislation,” Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada told the Senate as farm bill managers prepared to begin the debate on Tuesday (Nov. 6). “So I'm asking that we limit our amendments to only those that are germane to the farm bill.”

Bristling at the request, Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, criticized the Democratic leadership for failing to bring the farm bill to the floor sooner and “trying to deny the minority the opportunity to offer any amendments we see fit.”

Although several senators spoke in support of the farm bill or prospective amendments later that day, action on the farm bill moved off the Senate floor while party leaders attempted to work out an agreement on the amendments that could be offered.

The debate over the debate continued until Thursday (Nov. 8), when Conrad announced on the Senate floor that the Congressional Budget Office had scored the Senate Agriculture Committee farm bill proposal as costing $285.5 billion compared to $287.2 billion for the administration's farm bill.

“On top of that, we have completely offset the cost of our bill,” said Conrad, senior Democrat on the ag committee and chairman of the Senate Budget Committee. “We don't add a dime to the federal deficit. The president has never explained how he would pay for the increases in his bill.”

Conrad, Agriculture Committee Chairman Tom Harkin and other committee members were obviously perturbed by comments made by acting Agriculture Secretary Chuck Conner prior to the release of the Statement of Administration Policy on the committee farm bill Monday (Nov. 5).

“The bill increases trade-distorting support instead of lowering it, continues a defective safety net, contains little real reform and uses tax increases and budget gimmicks to pay for priorities that deserve to be funded in an honest fashion,” said Conner.

“We believe this bill makes a mockery of the budget process. It contains nearly $22 billion in budget gimmicks and nearly $15 billion in new taxes. This is simply unacceptable.”

But Conrad and Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, said such statements were “totally off base,” as Grassley put it. “We're closing loopholes in the tax code with this legislation, not raising taxes,” he said.

Conrad cited a provision in the tax laws allowing Americans to buy sewer systems in Europe and lease them back to the municipalities that operate them, taking a tax write-off from depreciating the value of the systems. “This (ending the practice) is a tax increase?” he said. “You've got to be kidding.”

In announcing the administration's farm bill cost more than the ag committee bill, Conrad noted that the CBO scoring indicates the five-year committee bill will represent an even smaller percentage of the federal budget than the 2002 farm bill. (Conrad also accused the Bush administration of trying to “make a 10-year bill” out of the farm bill in its Statement of Administration Policy when the bill will only run five years.)

“In the 2002 farm bill, the budget outlay accounted for 2.33 percent of total federal spending over the five years of the bill,” he said. “According to the CBO, the Senate Agriculture Committee-passed bill would account for 1.87 percent of the projected total federal spending through 2012.

“In the 2002 farm bill, commodity programs represented 0.75 percent of total federal spending. In the Senate ag committee farm bill, that drops to 0.25 percent of the total federal outlays. I didn't see that the White House mentioned that.”

Indicating the depth of the feelings on the farm bill controversy, Conrad called on Conner to issue an apology to the Agriculture Committee for some of the comments he made during the press briefing on the Statement of Administration Policy. (In his remarks on the tax provisions, Grassley called some of the president's advisers “stupid.”)

Grassley and Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., spoke on behalf of the Dorgan-Grassley payment limit amendment, the only amendment Majority Leader Reid was able to introduce before Senate Republicans began a series of speeches in which they objected to any limits on amendments.

“Presently, we have 10 percent of the large farmers in American getting 75 percent of all the money we put into a farm bill,” said Grassley. “There is nothing wrong with big farmers getting bigger, but there is something wrong when we have subsidies and farm programs going to big farmers who are getting bigger partly because of subsidies.”

Both Grassley and Dorgan said they've been fight for “real payment limitations” since the last farm bill, citing the 66 votes a similar amendment received in the amendment in 2002. (The provision was later removed from in the House-Senate conference report.)

The Dorgan-Grassley amendment would put a “hard cap” of $250,000 on the amount of farm program payments a farmer and his spouse could receive annually. It would also eliminate the use of commodity certificates, which are uncapped in the current law, to allow farmers to avoid limits on loan deficiency payments.

Farm organizations, meanwhile, have written Senate ag committee leaders, urging them to “reject any floor amendments which would substantially alter the payment limitation reforms that were included by the committee.”

The letter from 15 commodity groups said they believe the committee bill proposes substantial modifications to current restrictions, including elimination of the three-entity rule and requiring direct attribution of farm payment. It also cited the 70 percent reduction in the adjusted gross income limit eligibility criteria in the committee bill.

“The new provisions address the criticisms leveled at farm programs,” it said. “They will have a significant financial impact on numerous farming operations, lending institutions, and rural businesses. We urge you to reject any amendments which are designed to further reduce benefits or place additional restrictions on program eligibility.”

As the week wore on, Agriculture Committee Chairman Harkin urged senators to put aside their bickering over procedural issues and resume consideration of amendments pertinent to the farm bill.

“The Senate Agriculture Committee overcame strict budget limitations to craft a bill that is good for America and is fiscally responsible,” he said. “Everyone knows what is at stake in this farm bill. While this Senate debates procedure, families in rural communities await broadband access, farmers look for the resources that will help conserve our natural resources and school children await better access to fresh fruits and vegetables.

“With the administration's misguided veto threat looming over this bill, we cannot waste one more day — one more minute — debating procedure. I urge all of my colleagues to come together so can we resolve the issues raised by the administration and bring the advancements in this farm bill to realization.”

Besides the Dorgan-Grassley measure, amendments were also expected to be offered by:

  • Sens. Pat Roberts, R-Kan., and Daniel Inouye, D-Hawaii, authorizing a U.S. Agency for International Development $100 million overseas emergency food aid purchase pilot program

  • Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., restoring import and entry agricultural inspection functions to the U.S. Department of Agriculture

  • Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., limiting the distribution of certain agricultural payments to deceased individuals, and estates of those individuals

  • Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., directing USDA to provide cost-share and incentive payments to producers to address agricultural air quality concerns