Be it bird hunting in Minnesota or vote hunting on Capitol Hill, House agriculture committee chairman Collin Peterson is seen as a straight shooter of both pheasants and fools. Lately, he’s been drawin’ a bead on both.
On Jan. 19, the House ag chief, with Senate counterpart Tom Harkin of Iowa and Acting Secretary of Agriculture Chuck Conner seated nearby, blasted the glacial pace of 2007 farm bill talks while addressing the Pheasants Forever convention in St. Paul.
“Ridiculous,” is how he publicly characterized the going-nowhere-discussions, tied in a knot by the Bush administration’s inflexible requirements that a final bill include a hard, $200,000 adjusted gross income cap for farm program recipients and no new “taxes” to pay for the five-year legislation.
Both are non-starters for Congressional farm bill talkers. The House and Senate, with widespread bipartisan support, passed their respective bills with neither Bush element present.
After the public gathering, the three farm bill musketeers met privately to search for common ground on which all could pause before, hopefully, moving forward. The result was nothing. “We’re all still talking,” Peterson opined, “but we don’t seem to be making progress.”
Three days later, Peterson reloaded and took several more shots at the monolithic White House, this time through a teleconference with farm reporters and broadcasters.
“Look,” he related is his Minnesota monotone, “(the administration) tried to sell their farm bill around the country in more than 50 meetings” — a reference to former Secretary Mike Johanns’ two-years-long, coast-to-coast dog and pony shows — “and they couldn’t.”
Nor did it sell in Congress, he said, because when it was brought before “my committee, it got no votes.”
Key to the no-votes, no-go White House farm bill was the uniform lack of Southern Republican support in the ag committees. Those aren’t Peterson or Harkin’s chickens to herd; they are the White House’s and most long ago flew the Bush coop.
As such, “it’s going to take Republicans from farm country to bring the administration to some sensible accommodation” now, Peterson told reporters, because most are allied against the White House’s smaller income cap and flatter spending.
Also, few Congressional Republicans see the administration’s oft-repeated threat to veto any final farm bill without these pillars as helpful.
Indeed, most are at a loss to even understand why the White House continues to make the threat when it flat knows its GOP buddies south of the Mason Dixon Line — some of its most powerful allies — view it as both unnecessary and foolish.
Peterson, however, is taking the threat seriously. If a compromise farm bill is not completed by mid-February, or a finished bill is vetoed by the president before the late-March Easter break, he notes, the entire effort stands a good chance of being dumped in favor of the Agriculture Act of 1949, the often-amended but yet-in-place underlying farm law.
That relic — with “commodity support provisions ... so radically different from current policy and inconsistent with today’s farming, marketing, and trade practices,” explained a Jan. 14 report by the Congressional Research Service — is a good news-bad news item for U.S. farmers.
Good would be today’s per bushel loans rates under the ’49 act — $8.32 for wheat, $4.12 for corn, $3.75 for sorghum, $2.99 for barley and $28 per hundredweight for dairy.
Bad would be oilseed loan rates: there are none because the 1949 bill did not foresee the rise of soybeans.
Don’t write-off such a back-to-the-future move, cautioned Peterson Jan. 22. “Hey, if we get into a stalemate around here,” he says, “and I’d have to bet on what’s next, we’ll go back to the permanent (1949) law.”
Alan Guebert’s “Farm and Food File” is published weekly in more than 75 newspapers in North America. Contact him at email@example.com.