With a new president, an unprecedented switch of party control in the Senate, and about four months into the legislative session, Rep. Marion Berry, D-Ark., admits that the U.S. House of Representatives “hasn't actually accomplished much.” And some of what has passed, in Berry's opinion, isn't necessarily anything to be proud of. But things aren't all bad. The supplemental payment farmers are waiting on is coming.
“We've passed a budget which I voted against. We passed a tax bill a couple of weeks ago which I also voted against — primarily because the money to be used for tax relief is coming directly out of the pockets of our children and grandchildren. I have a great big problem with that. It almost guarantees we won't be able to make Social Security and Medicare sustainable without major effort down the line,” says Berry, who spoke to reporters on June 8.
The House also passed an education reauthorization bill recently. There were some good things in that bill. However, Berry isn't aglow about that either.
“I was disappointed that the education and budget bills didn't make enough provisions for reducing class size, building and repairing school buildings and supporting the program for children with disabilities.”
The four months hasn't been a total wash, he says. Efforts have moved forward on a supplemental payment to farmers in working with a bill Berry introduced earlier in the year. That has now gone to the House Agriculture Committee, “which is now working its will and adding some things to it. We hope to have this supplemental bill finished and have the payments in farmers' hands before the end of September. We hope to have the bill done before that, but don't want it to be later than September for the payments. I'm pleased about that.”
Is the rumored $40,000 cap on the supplemental AMTA payment being looked at? “It certainly is. The caps haven't applied to the other supplementals. I haven't heard any discussion on applying a cap to this one either. We do expect the payments to come down at the 1999 levels.”
A Farm Bureau lobbyist was recently quoted as saying, “After you've had three years of assistance, it's gotten to the point where farmers expect that unless things get better that (extra assistance) is going to be there.” Does this point to a real failure on the part of the farm bill and does Berry think with the Senate realignment, revisiting the farm bill might happen soon?
“I think that Freedom to Farm, which passed in 1996, has failed. It's been a disaster for Mid-South agriculture and agriculture across the country. Sen. Harkin (of Iowa, who now chairs the Senate Agriculture Committee) has indicated that he wants to move forward with a new farm bill. He expects it to be the ‘greenest’ farm bill we've ever written, which means it's going to have a lot of conservation titles and programs in it.”
Harkin said he didn't expect completion of the bill before next year. Berry hopes Congress can get a bill finished before next crop year.
“But there's no question about providing some kind of safety net for our farmers that they can count on instead of the worrying with supplementals like they are now. The current situation is simply unacceptable. There's no question about the need of farmers currently. Most of our farmers are in a desperate financial situation.”
Are Democrats like Berry in an awkward spot by opposing the tax cut? Many people are looking forward to the check that's coming.
“I find it awkward not making any substantive payment on the nation debt, allowing it to get larger because we haven't the money to pay it down. We're going to be spending about $1 billion per day on the national debt. That situation will be passed on to our children and grandchildren along with a condition where Social Security and Medicare trust funds have been robbed to pay for these tax cuts.”
When he gets his refund check, Berry intends to put it into a savings account for his children and grandchildren because there's no doubt “they'll need it.”
Further, the tax cut “was also one of the worst pieces of legislation I've ever seen written. It's a nine-year bill — not 10 years as was presented to the American people. The cost of it is also not $1.35 trillion, but at least $2 trillion. It also sunsets in nine years. At the end of nine years, we go back to current law. This is just an attempt to send out a check — which I'm glad about. But we should have made the necessary and appropriate reductions in spending rather than take it out of the (aforementioned) trust funds.”
Where would he make cuts? First would be the Department of Interior. Berry says he'd first stop them from buying land. The department also has a lot of personnel that “don't seem to be getting a whole lot done. I think their whole operation needs to be reviewed. We have a number of regulatory people on the street in agencies throughout the government that need reviewing.
“There are (government personnel) going after landowners for doing something on their own land. If we're going to spend taxpayers' money, we should be going after real criminals instead of people who were doing nothing more than using their land as they saw fit. There are examples of regulatory abuses that I could cite until the sun goes down. There are also a number of programs that need to be reviewed. That's the problem. We haven't gone over these programs carefully looking for ways to reduce spending.”
The best example of a foolish reduction in spending to accommodate the tax cut was in funds for the Mississippi River and tributary levees, says Berry. Those have a direct impact on the health, safety and well-being of the lower Mississippi River Valley.