Friday,September 22, 2006 By Shawn Wade
September20 was the day members of the House Agriculture Committee gathered to heardirectly from U.S. agriculture groups about what they would like to seediscussed in the 2007 Farm Bill debate.
Basedon reports circulating after the hearing, September 20 may be viewed by some asthe day the farm bill debate changed from determining how to improve an alreadypopular and effective program to installing something completely new anduntested.
Thatcertainly seemed to be the message picked up by many agriculture policyobservers who reported on the hearing and focused most of their attention onthe specific issues that were discussed.
Fortunatelyyou didn't need to dig very deep into the provided testimony to see that amajority of the nation's agriculture groups still have plenty of faith in thestructure and effectiveness of the 2002 Farm Bill.
Whatis also clear from the testimony, and the cause of much of the uncertaintyabout where the debate is headed, is that despite their favorable opinion ofthe current law, producers also believe the legislation can be improved invarious ways.
Unfortunately,the "We like the current program, butÉ" message that virtually all of thesegroups delivered is unintentionally casting a shadow over the 2007 farm billdebate. It is also encouraging farm bill opponents, who would prefer thecurrent legislation be completely scrapped, by creating a perception ofdissatisfaction that they are trying to exploit.
Itis never a good idea to give the opposition an opening and the take homemessage for agriculture groups from recent press coverage needs to be theimportance of clarifying their message. It is vital for agriculture to makesure Congress understands beyond a shadow of a doubt that what most producerswant to see is a more robust version of the 2002 Farm Bill.
Congress'bigger challenge may actually reside in the fact that more crops want to be apart of the current safety net program. Achieving that goal in the currentbudget environment, and also finding ways to improve the program for currentlycovered commodities, will most certainly not be an easy task.
Anothercomplicating factor is the unfinished WTO Doha trade negotiations. No matterwhat the U.S. Congress does regarding the 2007 Farm Bill, it is clear that anew Doha Round agriculture agreement would likely involve the U.S. agreeing tomake significant changes to U.S. farm policy.
Asif sensing the potential for a detrimental change in the farm bill debate,former Agriculture Secretary John Block noted in testimony presented to theHouse Ag Committee September 14 that, "Épolicy makers need to keep hold of alarger view of policy reform, and resist the temptation to focus on one aspect,or to approach the situation with a singular mind set. It is necessary toremember that farm program reform is an evolutionary process, not arevolutionary one."
Blockwrapped up his testimony on the same note saying that adjusting farm policy tochanging circumstances can be good, but that revolutionary, abrupt change isextremely risky.
Heconcluded, "American families spend less than 10 percent of their paycheck onfood – the lowest percentage of any developed nation in the world. Spending such a small percentage on food frees up billions of dollars oftake-home money to drive the rest of our economy. That is a major contributionby the agriculture community, which should garner the nation's support."
Breakingdown the testimony presented by the various groups it is clear that most ofthem were making sure their wish lists of possible reforms were clearly stated.What seemed to get lost in the shuffle was the fact that, overwhelmingly, theproducer members of the groups testifying would choose the structure of thecurrent Farm Bill over any of the optional support mechanisms thrown out fordiscussion thus far.
Amongthe issues discussed were the timing of a new trade agreement and possibleimpacts on the next farm bill; the importance of a strong farm safety net;commodity specific program parameters; as well as conservation and ruraldevelopment issues. Overall the groups provided a wide range of recommendationsfor the House Ag Committee to consider as it prepares to write the next farmbill.
LubbockRepresentative Randy Neugebauer and Midland Representative Mike Conaway joinedSan Antonio area Representative Henry Bonilla, Chairman of the HouseAgriculture Appropriations Subcommittee, and at least a dozen members of theHouse and Senate Agriculture Committees to step up efforts to secure 2005-2006disaster assistance.
Neugebauer,Conaway and company participated in a press conference September 14 to focusattention on the devastating impacts recent weather has had on Texas and U.S.agriculture.
Thegroup asked their fellow members of Congress to act quickly to approve acomprehensive disaster aid package and help U.S. farmers and ranchers cope withthe effects of this year's drought and other 2005 and 2006 weather relatedlosses.
Joiningmembers of Congress at the press conference held September 14 wererepresentatives from a number of national commodity and livestockorganizations.
Unfortunately,there is no guarantee that the renewed focus will give disaster assistance achance to be completed before Congress adjourns in early October for theNovember elections.