Administration Must Compromise on Farm Bill

April 15, 2008

By: Senator Norm Coleman

After months of negotiations, congressional negotiators are on the cusp of a farm bill agreement that’ll provide the framework necessary to quickly complete reauthorization of the nation’s farm policy.

This will be the product of a consistent, bipartisan, cross-regional and bicameral effort in Congress. With the spring planting season nearly upon us, it goes without saying that we quickly must reach an agreement that will provide certainty to our farmers.

Unfortunately, we still are facing some hurdles in completing a deal between Congress and the White House. Despite the progress between the House and Senate, the White House recently set forth its guidelines for a deal, which only cemented what already has been proven to be an inflexible approach.

While I understand the administration’s concerns, it’s time that all parties turn their focus to what we have in common so we can complete a deal.

A consensus is not unreachable. More than a year ago, the administration made a commendable effort to come up with an innovative farm bill proposal. Meanwhile, I have joined my colleagues on the Senate Agriculture Committee at many hearings over the past two years, where we listened to countless witnesses and asked hundreds of questions about the effectiveness of the farm bill’s programs.

What we learned was that our current farm programs need modifications here and there, but for the most part, they work. There are elements of the administration’s farm bill proposal in both the House and Senate farm bills, but there was widespread consensus in Congress that it made a lot more sense to augment and improve the current safety net — instead of scrapping many proven programs in favor of new, untested ones.

On the Agriculture Committee, I fought for increased sugar loan rates, the creation of a sugar ethanol program, increased supports for wheat, barley and soybeans and a new permanent agriculture disaster assistance program, among other Minnesota priorities. All of these improvements were included in the Senate farm bill, and none of them break the bank.

But despite the fact that Congress respectfully considered the administration’s proposal and even incorporated some of its ideas, the Senate- and House-passed commodity titles continue to face major hurdles with some members of the administration. Congress’ commodity provisions were based on a safety net that came in some $20 billion under budget and include programs that farmers across the country have testified they need.

History tells us that high commodity prices will not go on forever, and when prices plummet, we must have an updated safety net that will work. The Senate and House farm bills make good on that requirement, and it is a key to continuing the successful farm policy we have seen under the current farm bill.

I am very concerned that, just as we are close to reaching an agreement in time for planting season, the guidelines recently set forth by the administration would, in effect, take negotiations back to Square One. Their plan would eliminate the Senate farm bill’s increases in loan rates and target prices even as input costs shoot through the roof.

It also seeks to remove from the farm bill virtually every sugar beet grower priority, including elimination of the sugar ethanol program I have worked so hard to create over the years. This program actually saves money and contributes to our national efforts toward energy independence.

I’ve had very productive discussions with Ed Schafer, the new agriculture secretary. He understands the everyday impact this bill has on farmers in the Red River Valley and across the nation. I believe that we can reach a consensus between all parties, but we do not have much time.

The reality is that no member of Congress or administration official will or should get 100 percent of what he or she wants in any bill. I believe the time has come for the White House to compromise.

Without a more conciliatory position, the administration may see itself marginalized as Congress sets about to write a veto-proof farm bill. I won’t quit delivering the message to my colleagues and the administration that we must deliver a strong bill quickly. The cost of inaction is too high.

About the Author: Senator Norm Coleman (R-Minn.) is a member of the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry.

Editor’s Note: This article also appeared in the Fargo Forum on March 8.