President George Bush has agreed to sign the extension passed Wednesday by the House and Senate to extend the 2002 Farm Bill until April 18. However the President says that should Congress fail to complete a new farm bill by that date, he will call upon them to extend current farm law for at least a year. According to Bush, that is not what he wants, but he says the nation's farmers and ranchers need a program in place to base decisions on.
Although progress has been made recently on moving forward with the bill there is the potential for a serious split. House Ag Committee Chair Collin Peterson has discussed taking the House version of the Farm Bill commodity title and with a few changes, essentially extending current legislation. Funding reductions to meet baseline would be required in the areas of conservation, nutrition and rural development.
A major stumbling block is the question of funding, which the House Ways and Means and Senate Finance committees have been wrangling over for quite sometime. Making the task even more difficult is the recent hospitalization and continued illness of Representative Charles Rangle, D-N.Y., chairman of Ways and Means.
Another issue that is bogging down forward movement is the fact that the Senate Finance Committee wants to retain control over the portion of the bill they are funding. According to the Senate Ag Chairman Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, that is unacceptable to the ag leadership of both parties in the House and Senate as well as Rangle.
Harkin says relinquishing control of agriculture from agricultural interests is a slippery slope. "That almost seems like an argument you would hear our urban friends saying," Harkin says. "I think they would leap at the chance to take jurisdiction away from agriculture and put it in Finance and Ways and Means."
Harkin says while the Agriculture Committee limits itself to strictly agricultural issues, while Finance and Ways and Means have so many tax issues dealing with Wall Street, banking and other issues that he could see trade-offs where the committees could tighten ag purse strings to garner support for other policy.
"I think that is a dangerous, dangerous slope for those of us concerned about agriculture and rural America," Harkin says. "Now it is true that Baucus and Grassley are rural people. They are chairman and ranking member of Finance now. What about later on? Who's next in line? You have to start looking at that and thinking about what happens when they're not here. Once somebody starts establishing a principle like that, boy it's hard to end."