Leaders of a House-Senate conference committee simply “ran out of time” in their attempts to agree on a farm bill conference report before Congress departed for its two-week Easter-Passover recess March 22.

Late on March 19, Rep. Larry Combest, chairman of the conference committee, and the chairman and ranking members of the House and Senate Agriculture Committees issued a statement saying they had reached an agreement on a framework for speeding up the farm bill negotiations.

But they also announced they would not complete work on the farm bill conference report until Congress returns to work the week of April 9.

The statement followed a day in which the leaders postponed meetings that were to have taken place at 9 a.m., and then at 2 p.m., while they reportedly tried to work out an agreement on spending levels for the farm bill. The statement said:

“Farm bill negotiators today struck agreement on the needed framework to speed negotiations for early April completion of the House-Senate Conference Report.

“This framework allows for incorporating the many policy initiatives within the overall $73.5 billion agreed-upon 10-year farm bill budget. Members of Congress on the Conference Committee expect to be positioned to make the final farm bill decisions in public meetings of the conference the week of April 9.”

The development was another blow to farmers' hopes that committee members would at least complete a conference report before the recess and help remove the uncertainty that has clouded the farm financial outlook since last December. “We're a little more desperate,” said an Arkansas farmer on learning of the latest delay in passing a new farm bill. “It's time to plant, but there is no money, there is no farm bill and nobody will loan any money until there is a farm bill.”

“We just simply ran out of time,” said an aide to one of the conference committee members. “We thought we had an agreement over the preceding weekend, but we ran into some unanticipated problems with the Senate side and it fell apart.”

Agriculture Secretary Ann M. Veneman said in a statement that USDA could still implement a new farm bill for the 2002 season if Congress will act in early April.

“USDA stands ready to implement a new farm bill this year, and our team has been working on implementation measures during the last few months,” she said. “However, each week that passes makes this formidable task ever more challenging.”

Veneman said the administration was pleased with reports that the conference committee leaders had agreed to a basic framework for farm bill spending that adheres to the $73.5 billion in additional funding Congress had allocated for agriculture in its 10-year budget resolution.

Congressional sources said the new framework provides $48.6 billion for commodity programs, $17.1 billion for conservation, $6.4 billion to restore food stamps to aliens living in the United States and $3.3 billion for research, energy, credit and other programs.

But conference committee members still have to reconcile the differences in spending formulas in the House and Senate bill, including the $6.1 billion overrun that was discovered in the Senate-passed bill after its initial scoring.

Despite the remaining hurdles that must be cleared, Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle noted that the agreement “puts us one step closer to enacting a bill that corrects the problems in the 1996 bill.”


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