Senate contenders spar over budget

FARGO, N.D. -- U.S. Senate candidate Heidi Heitkamp is strongly criticizing opponent Rep. Rick Berg, R-N.D., for his support of a U.S. House budget plan by Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., that she says would cut $180 billion out of farm program spending ...

Heidi Heitkamp
Heidi Heitkamp, Democratic endorsee for the U.S. Senate, says the so-called Ryan House budget, endorsed by opponent Rep. Rick Berg, R-N.D., would jeopardize the safety net for farmers in the state. (Mikkel Pates, Agweek)

FARGO, N.D. -- U.S. Senate candidate Heidi Heitkamp is strongly criticizing opponent Rep. Rick Berg, R-N.D., for his support of a U.S. House budget plan by Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., that she says would cut $180 billion out of farm program spending over a 10-year period.

The Democratic nominee calls it "doublespeak" that Berg is also publicly supporting two other plans that sound like they're cutting less.

Berg also publicly supported a farm bill proposal being promoted in the Senate by fellow North Dakotans, Sens. Kent Conrad, a Democrat, and John Hoeven, a Republican, and by Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., the chairman of the Senate Finance Committee. That bill cuts $23 billion out of farm program spending.

It is difficult to see whether this apparent difference has any political traction among farm groups, even in a state that has recently received roughly $2 billion in a given year for supports of all kinds.

"Those two proposals are about as far apart as Jamestown (N.D.) is from Washington, D.C., and if Rep. Berg can't see that maybe he should spend more time back in North Dakota," Heitkamp says. Heitkamp's April 12 town meeting in Fargo, N.D., led off with discussion on Berg's farm program spending, and his support of Ryan's budget plan, but much of the public interest at the meeting focused on the bill's health care implications.


For his part, Berg says the Ryan budget included "suggestions" and that specific cuts will be determined by the House Agriculture Committee, chaired by Rep. Frank Lucas, R-Okla., who cautioned people about "reading too much" into the numbers. The House committee on April 18 passed an agricultural package to fit the budget, that cut $33.2 billion, ostensibly from "fraudulent, duplicative and abused nutrition programs -- and no cuts to any farm-related program," Berg noted.

Farm groups silent

Meanwhile, farm organizations in North Dakota have been silent on any inconsistency in the Berg positions. Berg told Agweek recently that he's gotten "questions" but no political heat from anyone but Heitkamp about his support for the Ryan budget, even with its agricultural cuts.

"Our bottom line is we have to reduce the spending," Berg says, explaining his support of the Ryan budget, noting that it would bring a balanced budget in 26 years. "Do I agree with everything in the Ryan budget? Absolutely not, but it's kind of a requirement, it's a first step."

"I have not had any ag groups in North Dakota that have come to me and said, 'No way, don't even look at this,'" Berg says of the Ryan budget. He says he thinks they "understand the dire consequences our country is in" and are willing to cut their "fair share" of the spending.

Heitkamp says that she'd be surprised that if "behind closed doors" farm leaders are saying the Ryan budget is "not sending the right message to (Berg's House) colleagues about what production agriculture needs in North Dakota."

Privately, some farm leaders reached by Agweek say that Berg's overall support on budget cutting is understandable, but they think he will work in the end to provide a price support program for the state's agricultural producers, a key constituency. Also, it's not good business for nonpartisan groups to publicly criticize a candidate who might ultimately represent their interests in the Senate.

Dan Wogsland, executive director of the North Dakota Grain Growers Association, which represents wheat and barley farmer interests, declined comment except to say that farm advocates are simply "carefully watching" how the sequence of farm bill policies are developed, and whether a farm bill can be passed in 2012 at all. "They're saying they have to get it done by Labor Day," Wogsland says.


Wogsland declined to comment on whether Berg's support of the Ryan budget is irrelevant, but he says the important thing is what the Senate passes and what the House Agriculture Committee does with it, and within its budget constraints -- what programs will be supported or cut. Crop insurance is the primary consideration for small grain growers, he says.

Without commenting on either candidate's position, Mike Clemens, a Wimbledon, N.D., farmer who sits on the public policy team for the National Corn Growers Association, says farm groups don't "respond immediately" to proposals like the Ryan budget because it's too soon to determine whether they're a political reality.

Clemens says that overall political objectives don't always match up with constituent needs, but that can be fixed in separate legislation down the road.

"We've seen that time and time again," he says. "I don't think the farm organizations believe the cuts are going to be that deep. I think they think, at the end of the day there'll be some sense made, for fair and equitable cuts. How they get there, by going through their political rings, it's up to them to provide the magic to make it work for everybody."

Mikkel Pates is an agricultural journalist, creating print, online and television stories for Agweek magazine and Agweek TV.
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