It didn't take long for the “honeymoon” between the chairman of the House Agriculture Committee and his counterpart on the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry to hit its first bump in the road.
Rep. Collin Peterson and Sen. Tom Harkin, who hail from the neighboring states of Minnesota and Iowa, have been meeting weekly to discuss the 2007 farm bill the panels they chair must write before the current law, the 2002 farm bill, expires Sept. 30.
By all accounts, the two were getting along famously until the House Agriculture Committee released its draft of the farm bill conservation title its Subcommittee on Conservation, Credit, Energy and Research was scheduled to begin “marking up” on May 22.
Before Peterson could announce the schedule for the subcommittee markups during a press briefing on May 17, Harkin released a statement criticizing the draft title for not providing enough funding for conservation programs.
“The 2002 farm bill provided the greatest expansion of conservation funding in history,” Harkin said. “Yet the promised conservation initiatives — expanding EQIP, creating the Conservation Security Program, continuing to expand acres protected in the WRP — were denied because funding was cut in subsequent legislation.”
Harkin said the new House bill “perpetuates” the damage to conservation and the environment caused by the previous two Congresses and the Bush administration by not providing the conservation funding farmers need.
Peterson tried to downplay Harkin's displeasure with the House conservation plan, saying he had discussed the House proposal with the Senate ag committee chairman and that he knew the latter was not pleased.
He conceded that the bill does not provide funding for the Conservation Security Program at the “level Sen. Harkin wants, and there won't be money for any new contracts for a while.” (Under the draft language in the House bill, the Conservation Security Program would not be re-authorized until the 2012 fiscal year.)
“But the important thing is the program is still there,” he said. “What you're going to see in this mark is a reflection of what the priorities of this committee are. We put together in the 2002 bill, a good conservation title, and it worked. The programs are up and running, everyone is behind them, and we want to build on that.”
The Conservation Security Program, in contrast, came out of the Senate and was not debated in the House Agriculture Committee. (Harkin, the author of the CSP, added it in the House-Senate conference committee on the 2002 farm bill.)
“It's had its fits and starts,” he said. “So I would have to say these other, proven programs are a higher priority with this committee. We also think significant changes are needed — the CSP is too complicated, we're not exactly sure the priorities are set up the right way and we will be focusing on making the program more effective going forward.”
Peterson said the markup session by the Subcommittee on Conservation, Credit, Energy and Research scheduled for May 22 was to be followed by a similar session for the Subcommittee on Livestock, Dairy and Poultry on May 24.
The markup sessions will continue for other farm bill titles in June, following the Memorial Day recess. The full committee will then review the titles and hopes to report out a farm bill by July 4.
“We are beginning a bipartisan, open and public process to create a farm bill that will address the changing landscape of our nation's agricultural economy,” said Peterson. “We understand how important it is for farmers, ranchers and consumers that we all work together and get this farm policy right.”
The House ag committee is taking a different approach this year by allowing its subcommittees to conduct markup sessions before receiving the “chairman's mark” of the new farm bill. In the past, the latter has allowed the committee chairman to put his stamp on the new law early in the process.
Peterson said the media had overplayed his earlier comments that the committee would not accept any farm bill proposals unless a member of the agriculture committee introduced them.
“I did not mean to imply that this was a closed process,” he said. “Other House members, of course, will be able to introduce amendments when the bill reaches the floor. It's just that we deal with these issues all the time, and we feel that we're more familiar with them.”
Peterson appeared at the press briefing with Rep. Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., ranking minority member on the ag committee, and with Rep. Tim Holden, D-Penn., chairman of the Conservation, Credit, Energy and Research Subcommittee, and Rep. Frank Lucas, R-Okla., its ranking member.
Both the chairman and ranking member said dealing with the money issue will be the biggest challenge committee members will face. Because the 2002 law has not cost as much as was expected, the committee has $60 billion less to work with than it did prior to writing it.
“Some things will have to be funded out of the reserve fund in the budget resolution and will be contingent on our finding offsets in the budget,” said Peterson. “But we're working with our leaders and the Budget Committee to try to resolve those problems.”
Goodlatte noted that the Bush administration's budget would increase farm bill funding by $5 billion. “That $5 billion is certainly not $60 billion, but we're not asking for the $60 billion. We're simply asking for enough money to address conservation issues and a host of other issues for which there are not enough resources.
“This is a fiscally responsible thing we're asking for because we have saved the taxpayers of this country $60 billion over the last farm bill. We're just asking for a small portion of that, quite frankly, to be allowed to be used to further efforts to help rural America.”
“Most of us on the committee have a farm background, and we're just like farmers,” said Peterson. “We put seeds in the ground. We don't have any idea what will happen, but farmers are born optimists, and I'm optimistic we can produce a good bill.”
In other farm bill news, the House and Senate voted to approve a fiscal year 2008 budget that aims to produce a budget surplus by 2012 and contains a $20-billion reserve fund for the 2007 farm bill.
The Senate passed the budget plan 52-40 and the House, 214-209. Authors of the bill, including Sen. Kent Conrad, D-N.D., said it contains no tax increases, but Republicans claimed it would produce the largest tax increase in history, primarily by not continuing the Republican-passed tax cuts of the last six years.
The House Agriculture Committee also passed three measures that will be sent to the House floor.
H. Con. Res. 25 expresses the sense of Congress that by the year 2025, America's agricultural, forestry, and working lands should provide at least 25 percent of the total energy consumed in the United States through renewable sources while continuing to produce safe, abundant, and affordable food, feed, and fiber.
H.R. 926, introduced by House Agriculture Committee members Stephanie Herseth Sandlin, D-S.D., and Goodlatte, would prohibit the provision of federal economic development assistance for any state or locality that uses the power of eminent domain to obtain property for private commercial development.
H. Res. 79 would recognize the establishment of Hunters for the Hungry programs across the United States and the contributions of those programs' efforts to decrease hunger and help feed those in need.