Friday, August 31, 2007

Farm Bill future in Senate is cloudy

Here is the report from Barbara Vauthier and Zy Weinberg's excellent newsletter Foodlinks America, which is available for free from the TEFAP Alliance.
Although Congress has begun working on a 2007 Farm Bill that will guide federal agriculture and food policy into the next decade, it is uncertain whether a final bill will be completed this year. The House of Representatives passed its version of the bill on July 27, 2007, but action has yet to be scheduled in the Senate.

Senate action will depend, in part, on whether Senate Agriculture Committee chair Tom Harkin (D-IA) and/or Senate Budget Committee chair Kent Conrad (D-ND) can identify funds to offset the cost of desired improvements in conservation and nutrition programs. Harkin, who is committed to nutrition program expansion, recently said, “We can’t let this Farm Bill go through without a really strong nutrition title and have some of the gaps [in the Food Stamp Program] filled.”

Little progress is expected in revising commodity program payments, one of the more controversial aspects of the Farm Bill and a possible source of funds for new priorities. After the House essentially maintained the status quo on commodity payments, the momentum for change in the Senate began to fizzle. “Political expediency trumped moral responsibility in the House’s vote on the Farm Bill,” commented Reverend David Beckman, president of Bread for the World, a Christian lobbying organization in Washington, D.C. “In the end, the House made only cosmetic changes to the outdated commodity payment system. While obviously disappointing, the passage of the House’s version of the 2007 Farm Bill is by no means the end of the push for broad reform,” said Beckman.

Also potentially complicating the Farm Bill picture in the Senate are World Trade Organization (WTO) issues. The potential need to settle costly trade disputes through the Farm Bill may add financial pressures. It was reported on August 29, 2007 that agricultural trade talks under the WTO, stalemated for almost six years, may resume and move forward in early September. The WTO “could actually blow this whole thing up,” Representative Collin Peterson (D-MN), chair of the House Agriculture Committee has warned in reference to world trade and the Farm Bill. A reduction of up to $16 billion annually in “trade-distorting subsidies,” like commodity program payments, could be required of the U.S. in WTO rulings.

Consequently, Farm Bill outcomes in the Senate are currently anybody’s guess. “The Senate leadership can reclaim the moral high ground by giving priority to reform of farm commodity programs when they take up the bill in September,” noted Reverend Beckman, who remains optimistic change can occur. “Eventually, the flood of constituents calling for a fair Farm Bill will overwhelm the narrow interests of the select few.”