Prospects are bleak for the passage of a new farm bill this year, but there's a good possibility that Congress will push through $7.35 billion in funding for 2002, according to several Washington observers and legislators.

Before the Sept. 11 terrorist attack on the World Trade Center, most legislators knew that the passage of a farm bill by the end of this year was going to be a struggle, said Mark Keenum, chief of staff for Sen. Thad Cochran, R-Miss. Keenum spoke during the National Cotton Council's fall board meeting.

After the events of Sept. 11, the tone turned even more pessimistic. While the House has passed its version of a farm bill, the Senate is less inclined to take up the challenge.

Keenum noted that Sen. Richard Lugar, R-Ind., ranking minority member of the Senate Agriculture Committee, has said he “couldn't believe that Congress could even consider moving on a new farm bill in a time of war.”

Keenum said a number of farm-state congressmen are concerned that if the farm bill is delayed past April 2002, when Congress is set to pass another funding resolution, “there's no guarantee that the ag funding will be there.”

Keenum explained that the agreement for the $73.5 billion currently appropriated for ag spending over the 10-year life of a new farm bill was struck during a time when there was a huge federal budget surplus. In addition, the allocation did not require deficit spending on the part of Congress.

Economic conditions have since worsened, and the surplus has all but disappeared, meaning Congress might not be as willing to allocate the full funding. However, it has shown a willingness to authorize deficit spending through its allocation of $40 billion for terrorist victims.

Some farm groups worry that agriculture's lobbying effort for a farm bill may be viewed as insensitive, since it comes at a time when the nation is grieving over the loss of life at the World Trade Center and focused for a war on terrorism.

But, Sen. Marion Berry, D-Ark., told attendees of the meeting via telephone, “Money that we spend on farm programs is also a national security issue.” If the farm bill isn't passed this year, attention will turn to securing $7.3 billion for 2002. “There's a good chance that bill will be passed,” Berry said.

One factor is that 2002 is an election year and Republicans are intent on regaining control of the Senate, noted Keenum.

“We have a desperate situation out there,” Keenum added. “If we don't do anything for producers, we could see a huge loss of producers next year.”

Another possibility for agriculture is that a farm bill may meet the criteria for the Bush administration's proposed economic stimulus package, said John Maguire, the NCC's vice president of Washington Operations.


e-mail: erobinson@primediabusiness.co