Presidential election adds pressure to get farm bill debate done on time

Of the three candidates left in the race for the presidency, Hillary Clinton is the most likely to support traditional farm programs. Barack Obama would “probably support farm programs.” And John McCain “never met a farm program he liked.”

That's the candid assessment Jerry Hagstrom, correspondent, Congress Daily, Washington, D.C., made as keynote speaker at the recent Plains Cotton Growers Inc., annual meeting in Lubbock.

Hagstrom said Sen. Clinton has worked hard to protect farm programs for her New York constituents. “She's had a good relationship with farmers in the northern part of the state. She helped the state's wine producers.”

Hagstrom said New England farmers believe the current farm law favors the Midwest. “They think too much money goes to the Plains States,” he said. But he said Clinton would support traditional farm laws so that when “she goes back to Arkansas she will not be opposed. She has not come out against traditional support programs.”

He said Sen. Obama has received a lot of support from rural states and has been strong on ethanol. “He supported the 2005 energy bill.”

Hagstrom said former North Dakota Sen. Tom Daschle is a “major figure behind Obama. A number of Daschle's staff now work for Obama so he has experienced aides.”

He said the Illinois senator would support ethanol and would probably support traditional farm programs although Daschle has recently backed off support for those programs in favor of bio-energy support.

Hagstrom said he did not understand why some politicians could support ethanol subsidies and back away from traditional farm supports. “I don't understand why ethanol subsidies are superior to cotton and grain subsidies,” he said. “Many who oppose traditional subsidies support ethanol tax breaks.”

He said Senator McCain “is vigorously opposed to ethanol tax breaks and tariffs. He's never changed his position on ethanol. He is remote from agriculture.”

Hagstrom posed the question of timing for a new farm bill, given the drawn-out debate. “Would you prefer to write a farm bill with either of the three candidates or with the current administration?”

He said accomplishing a farm bill by the April 18 deadline would require “the secretary of agriculture and Congress to make compromises without folks getting too riled up. The administration has to compromise, not just Congress.”

Hagstrom said Secretary of Agriculture Ed Schafer has enough “personal standing to go to the president and tell him he needs to compromise.”

One possible point of agreement in the funding debate could be users' fees. “Manufactured goods coming into the United States must be inspected,” and pay fees for the service, Hagstrom said. “Fees go to the government, but that law expires at some time. If the law is extended the money could be used for the farm bill.”

He said those fees generate about $7 billion and “are not considered a tax.” A possible sticking point is New York Rep. Charlie Rangel, chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, who “is trying to get funds for trade adjustment assistance programs (which would help provide training for jobs lost as companies relocate overseas).”

Rangel also wants more money for nutrition programs and Hagstrom said he would “need to be accommodated.”

Hagstrom said Congress and the administration are under pressure to get a farm bill done because of the presidential election and also because of spring planting season. “We are at a key moment,” he said. “Now is not the time to ask for more. It's time to take what you can get.”

He said farmers find it harder and harder to have an impact in Congress “because your numbers are so small. But farmers' active involvement,” helps their cause, he said.

The 2002 farm program, he said, has been one of, if not the, most popular farm programs in history. “It's the most efficient. Costs went down as commodity prices went up. That has played a role in what has happened to the 2008 bill.”

He said a reform movement also played a role in delaying passage of the bill, but he voiced skepticism at the word reform. “Reform implies improvement and I'm not certain proposed changes are improvements.”

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