Agriculture

Finishing farm bill on Congress' plate

WASHINGTON -- Congress returns Monday to confront a lot of unfinished business, including a farm bill that's important for the San Joaquin Valley. Many questions have arisen; here are some answers.

Question: Good grief, aren't they finished yet?

Answer: Sadly, no.

Technically, much of the 2002 farm bill expired Sept. 30. Some Senate optimists insisted lawmakers could finish their work by the end of the year. That didn't happen. Then lawmakers gave themselves a March 15 deadline. They missed that, too. Now, the House and Senate confront an April 18 deadline. They probably will make it this time.

Q: Isn't it taking them a long time?

A: Yes. The House approved its farm bill July 27, and the Senate approved its version Dec 14.

Q: Who's writing this thing, anyway?

A: Many hands stir the pot, most behind the scenes. On Monday, the House is expected to appoint members of the "conference committee" who will conduct negotiations with their Senate counterparts. Rep. Dennis Cardoza, D-Merced, almost certainly will be one of the committee members.

He is chairman of the House horticulture and organic agriculture subcommittee and helped shepherd the bill's provisions covering fruits and vegetables. He probably will be one of only two Californians on the negotiating committee, which likely will be dominated by Southerners and Midwesterners.

Staff members, committee leaders and Agriculture Department officials have been narrowing their differences in private. The appointment of conferees signals that negotiations are entering their final stage.

Q: What's been the hang-up?

A: Money, naturally. Negotiators first had to figure out how much additional money could be spent. They've settled on $10 billion, which will be added to the $286 billion or so set for the existing farm bill.

Lawmakers also had to figure out how to cover the new money while avoiding tax hikes.

"A new bill is within reach," Sen. Tom Harkin, the Iowa Democrat who is chairman of the Senate Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry Committee, said recently, "but Congress needs more time."

Q: Who cares?

A: Start with the California recipients of various crop subsidy checks, who numbered roughly 16,217 in 2005.

California cotton, rice, wheat and corn growers received $522 million in direct subsidies from 2003 to 2005, according to an Environmental Working Group database. These growers have the biggest direct stake in the farm bill, which by and large retains the subsidy policy.

Q: How about California's fruit and vegetable growers?

A: They do better, though not as well as they had hoped.

The original House bill offered roughly $1.7 billion over five years for specialty crops. The money goes for block grants to states, federal meal purchases and more.

To fund a disaster program supported by key Midwestern senators, negotiators reportedly have reduced new specialty crop spending to $1.35 billion to $1.7 billion over 10 years.

Q: Is that all?

A: Don't forget food stamps. Roughly 2 million low-income California residents receive food stamps, which are funded through the farm bill. Food stamps and other nutrition programs account for more than half of the bill's cost.

Bee Washington Bureau reporter Michael Doyle can be reached at mdoyle@mcclatchydc.com or 202-383-0006.

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