Democratic takeover could shift, speed debate on farm policy
WASHINGTON (AP) – The Democratic takeover of the Senate could speed an overhaul of federal farm programs and shift more money into conservation payments to farmers and ranchers who adopt environmentally friendly practices.
The change in power makes South Dakotan Tom Daschle the majority leader and may put Iowan Tom Harkin in charge of the Senate Agriculture Committee. They are two of Congress’ most vocal critics of the 1996 ”Freedom to Farm” law that loosened government controls on farmers and lowered price supports.
”This obviously has major implications,” said Sen. Kent Conrad, D-N.D., who will become Budget Committee chairman. ”It means we will have a more farmer-friendly policy and that movement on rewriting the farm bill will be dramatically speeded up.”
Harkin, talking to Iowa reporters last week, promised ”significant changes” in farm policy and said ”conservation is going to be an integral part of the new farm bill.”
Harkin wants the government to pay farmers as much as $50,000 a year for conservation practices that include controlling runoff that fouls lakes and streams, improving wildlife habitat and restoring wetlands.
He also has criticized the fixed annual farm payments that are guaranteed under the 1996 law, supported federal incentives for crop-based fuel additives such as ethanol and pushed for more stringent food-safety measures.
Harkin’s conservation program was endorsed earlier this week by two influential farm groups, the National Corn Growers Association and the American Soybean Association.
”That risk we took” in backing Harkin’s proposal ”suddenly doesn’t look as risky,” said Bruce Knight, a lobbyist for the corn group.
The 1996 farm law doesn’t expire until next year, and Senate Republicans weren’t planning to rewrite it before then. But some farm-state Democrats in the Senate want to overhaul it this year, as House Republicans already are moving to do. House Agriculture Committee Chairman Larry Combest, R-Texas, said he hopes to have a new bill ready by the August congressional recess.
Harkin may try to step up the Senate’s pace, but regional divisions always make it difficult for lawmakers to agree on farm policy, said Tom Buis, a lobbyist for the National Farmers Union.
Farms in the South, for example, tend to be relatively large and oppose payment caps that have backing in the Midwest. Producers in the West and East who have traditionally had little government support, such as apple growers, now want some.
”The regional differences will still be there,” said Buis. ”How quickly we overcome those will determine how quickly a farm bill is put together and how successful the program will be.”
It’s even less clear whether the Democratic takeover will have any impact on dairy policy, say lobbyists and lawmakers. If anything, the power shift precipitated by Vermont Sen. James Jeffords’ defection from the GOP may have further muddied what is likely to be a long and bitter debate.
A dairy price support system in New England that Jeffords has tried to preserve will expire this fall unless Congress renews it.
There are proposals, opposed by lawmakers from dairy-rich states in the Midwest and West, to expand the New England ”compact” throughout the Northeast and create another for the South.
Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., could become chairman of the Judiciary Committee, which has jurisdiction over dairy compacts. The panel also holds sway over President Bush’s judicial nominations, giving Leahy an enormous source of leverage with Republicans.
But the Senate’s staunchest opponent of compacts, Wisconsin Democrat Herb Kohl, will become chairman of the agricultural appropriations subcommittee.
”This is a place where Democrats are fighting Democrats and Republicans are fighting Republicans and one region is fighting another,” said Conrad.
On the Net: Senate Agriculture Committee: http://www.senate.gov/~agriculture
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