Senate committee to consider new farm bill

WASHINGTON - Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, is likely to schedule committee consideration of a new farm bill the week of Sept. 17 and hopes Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., will schedule floor action on the bi...

WASHINGTON - Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, is likely to schedule committee consideration of a new farm bill the week of Sept. 17 and hopes Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., will schedule floor action on the bill shortly thereafter, a Harkin spokeswoman has told Agweek in an e-mail.

The spokeswoman said that the committee would not be ready to consider the bill until the third week of September because senators just returned to Washington last week and will be in session this week for only three days because they will take a break for the Jewish holidays.

The content of the Senate bill still is uncertain. Harkin has said he wants more money for conservation programs, especially the Conservation Security Program, and for food stamps and rural development programs. But Sens. Kent Conrad, D-N.D., and Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga., the highest-ranking Republican on the committee, have said they are more concerned about maintaining current subsidy programs.

The House version of the bill maintains current subsidy programs with increases in target prices and loan rates for most Northern crops. The House bill also includes stricter limitations on payments to individual farmers. Cotton farmers don't like that provision, but they do not like another provision that makes changes in the cotton program to make it easier to sell cotton overseas.

Draft proposal


Harkin has not released a draft of the key commodity title that covers basic farm subsidies, but a Harkin aide shared a copy of a draft commodity proposal with staffers for committee on Democrats in mid-August, and a copy of that draft proposal appeared Aug. 24 on the Web site of the Environmental Working Group. Although Harkin has suggested cutting the direct payments program, the draft proposes continuing that program at current levels, but without the authority for the agriculture secretary to make a portion of those payments early in the crop year.

The Harkin proposal would allow changes in the loan rates for program crops by setting them at 85 percent of the five-year average price excluding the years with the highest and lowest prices, but would not allow any loan rate to increase or decrease more than 1 percent per year. The proposal did not say what five-year period would be used to determine the prices.

The Harkin proposal also would shift the trigger for the countercyclical program payments from a low price for each crop to a decrease in revenue for each crop on a national basis. It would include national target revenues per acre for major crops. The current crop insurance program would be continued "with minor changes for the purpose of improving efficiency, closing loopholes in policy and budget savings," the draft said. But the Harkin proposal would allow the Agriculture Department to offer a supplemental crop insurance program to farmers acquiring buy-up insurance coverage for their crops as a replacement for ad hoc disaster assistance. The farmer would pay no premium or fee for this secondary policy.

The Harkin spokeswoman emphasized that the document should not be considered "the Harkin proposal," that it was not legislative language" and only "ideas for staff of committee members to consider and respond to." Harkin has released drafts of other farm bill titles to committee members, but has not made them public.

Trade talksThe Senate farm bill debate also could be affected by trade negotiations if the United States offers to make deeper cuts in farm subsidies. President Bush and U.S. Trade Representative Susan Schwab are under pressure from other world leaders to offer deeper cuts in U.S. farm subsidies. Bush and other world leaders have said they would like to revive the Doha Round talks, but many analysts say that there is little likelihood of serious movement in the talks until 2009.

Agricultural talks in the stalled Doha Round of trade negotiations resumed Sept. 3 at the World Trade Organization headquarters in Geneva and are expected to last three weeks, according to a source close to the WTO.

The talks follow the release this summer of a revised proposal by Crawford Falconer, the New Zealander who chairs the talks. Farm groups in both the United States and the European Union said the Falconer draft would require farmers in the developed countries to give up too much in subsidies compared with the increased market access they would get in the less developed countries. Falconer told the delegates the talks would begin with market access and then proceed to domestic subsidies and export subsidies. Falconer said the three weeks of "intense negotiations" would end Sept. 21, but that he would expect delegates to return to Geneva in mid-October.

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