When Congress passed the Farm Security and Rural Investment Act of 2002, many thought the Conservation Security Program in the new law offered an opportunity for a new direction for farm programs.

Instead of being paid not to produce as under the 1930s-style programs or for being loosely connected to farming as in the 1990s version, the Conservation Security Program promised to reward growers for “socially commendable” acts such as improving water quality or expanding wildlife habitat.

Unfortunately, something appears to have been lost in the translation between passage of the legislation and the Dec. 17 release of the proposed rule for implementing it.

Some of the problem lies with House Republican leaders, who have never “bought” into the CSP, in part, because it was written by Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin, a Democrat. Although Harkin intended it to be an entitlement program with no spending limits, Congress capped it's funding.

Under the House-passed fiscal 2004 omnibus spending bill that is pending in the Senate, funding would be limited to $41 million — enough for 150 to 300 contracts nationwide as the program is now envisioned.

Announcing the proposed rule, USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service officials said they would initially focus on water and soil quality improvements in “priority watersheds in various areas of the country.” Selecting which areas from an estimated 900 million acres that could be eligible for CSP is sure to become a political “football.”

The proposed rule's authors also appear to have moved away from the legislation's original intent. While Sen. Harkin clearly meant for no-till farmers to be rewarded for the practice, NRCS Chief Bruce Knight told reporters “the practice of no-till would not make one eligible for CSP.”

“It's the ability to address the resource that we're trying to get at, both soil erosion and water quality,” Knight said. “So it's more than just an individual practice like no-till or a conservation buffer strip. It's how you operate the larger unit.”

While the NRCS chief was sincere in his answer, the bureaucratese is a far cry from the “farmers will be paid for Tier I conservation practices such as no-till farming or conservation buffer strips” in the law.

Critics are also concerned that the first farmers will not be enrolled in CSP until next summer or fall — nearly two years after the passage of the 2002 farm bill.

Why the constraints on such a promising program? Some say it's the other, less-publicized side of the administration's tax cut agenda, which critics have said is built on a “starve the beast” philosophy. That is, cut taxes until the deficits become so large that Congress has no choice but to drastically cut spending for federal programs.

Those who put credence in that idea say the CSP is just the first step in a plan that will substantially reduce spending on farm programs after the 2004 elections. That's some food for thought as you finish your Christmas leftovers.