Guest Editorial: Farm bill may hold reforms after all
The Bush administration telegraphed Tuesday morning that the president was leaning toward vetoing the farm bill. And by Tuesday evening, the threat seemed to be having an effect.
Negotiators in Congress accepted some of the reforms that the administration suggested, wire services reported. If the acceptance holds, that would be good news -- good for this year's farm bill and for the farm programs of the future, too.
Because the administration is echoing a loud nationwide call for farm bill reform. The bill's development may be at the 11th hour, but Congress could and should still listen to that important call.
At issue are the limits to be imposed on the various payments to farmers. Reformers want strict limits, especially on generous payments to people who already earn CEO-sized incomes. And while that's not a new demand, the very long lineup of environmental, rural development, consumer and other groups this year that are insisting on the limits is new -- and powerful.
In December, some of the groups directed their wrath at Sen. Kent Conrad, D-N.D. A chief architect of the Senate's farm bill, Conrad had supported the reformers' calls in the past. But in December, he backtracked, and the bill that resulted contained few of the activists' favored reforms.
That's because Southern senators wouldn't agree to the changes, Conrad wrote in a Herald op-ed in December.
The proposals "would have cost us the votes necessary to get the supermajority needed to pass the bill in the Senate and be in a position to overcome the president's threatened veto," he wrote.
"When you are in a position of responsibility to get legislation passed, you have to make choices. I made the choice to get final passage of a farm bill that is critically important to North Dakota -- where one out of every five North Dakotans derives their income directly from agriculture.
"(T)o get that, I had to have the agreement of other senators. The biggest bloc of other senators was the Southern senators, who represent states with an agricultural economy that is different from ours and are strongly opposed to further payment reductions."
Farm-bill strategy since December also can be explained by supporters' desire to build a veto-proof majority.
But Tuesday, that stance seemed to change. "There were signs of new movement (in Congress) Tuesday night, and the administration is pressing for a 'hard cap' that would deny commodity payments to even full-time farmers whose average adjusted gross income over three years exceeded $500,000," the Web site www.politico.com reported.
As interesting, Sen. Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga., and the ranking Republican in the negotiations, "confirmed that he is testing a new configuration in hopes of putting the issue to rest and avoiding a veto fight." Chambliss leads the group of Southern senators that Conrad mentioned; so, if he and his allies now are willing to deal on payment limitations, that's a very important change.
Conrad and other farm-state senators have worked long and hard on the farm bill, and the end now seems clearly within reach. Here's hoping the final bill includes tight payment limits to show that Congress heeded the reformers' call.
-- Grand Forks Herald