In 2005, USDA officials spent thousands of hours traveling around the country, conducting farm bill forums in places like Decatur, Ill., Cheyenne, Wyo., and Blackfoot, Idaho.

Later, USDA issued 41 “farm bill theme papers,” summarizing the comments from the listening sessions held in 49 states. (USDA officials said they skipped Mississippi because the state was recovering from Hurricane Katrina.)

So what did farmers and other taxpayers receive for the millions of dollars spent on USDA’s forays? A farm bill that is at least two months later than it should have been, according to farm bill veterans.

When Collin Peterson and Tom Harkin, chairmen of the House and Senate agriculture committees, said they could have a new farm bill signed, sealed and delivered by this past February, some thought they were being overly optimistic.

But Peterson, Democrat from Minnesota, had been waiting since the House passed its farm bill by a sizable majority in July. And Harkin, an Iowa Democrat, was still basking in the glow of a 79-14 vote in favor of the farm bill that passed the Senate in December.

What neither anticipated was the intransigence of the Bush administration on the issues of farm bill spending levels, revenue sources and payment limit reforms that forced an extension of the current law until April 18.

Harkin talked about the situation when asked about the possibility of House and Senate leaders foregoing the legislation they passed last year and opting for a “baseline” farm bill.

Bristling at the suggestion, Harkin reminded participants in his weekly press conference that he had worked with every member to write a bill the Senate Agriculture Committee passed with little dissent.

“We brought it on the Senate floor and got 79 votes,” he said. “I mean you can’t get much more bipartisan than that. And the revenues were agreed to by Finance Committee Republicans and Democrats. So I’m just sorry to White House decided they would veto it.

“If they had taken the basic Senate bill — we would have had to modify it a little to get it passed by the House — but they could have taken our bill and passed it and had a good bill. But the White House said no.”

Harkin could have noted the administration’s initial refusal to consider any increases in spending that it had not suggested in its farm bill proposals. Now administration officials reportedly have agreed to a bill that’s $10 billion above baseline.

The latter also were adamant a new farm bill had to include payment limit reforms such as reducing the adjusted gross income eligibility limit from $2.5 million to $200,000. Congressional negotiators reportedly have agreed to reduce the AGI limit to $700,000.

Before they announced their proposals last year, USDA had not submitted farm bill language since back in the Reagan administration, 20 years earlier. If farmers are lucky, it will be 20 years before another White House tries to do so.

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