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WASHINGTON PERSPECTIVES
SHOW ME THE MONEY

by Dan Glickman

D
ollars and policy always feed off of one another in Washington, but rarely has the balance been so heavily titled to the dollar end of the scale as during the flurry of farm policy activity before Congress departed town for its annual summer recess. No one was saying, "Show me the policy"; it was all about the money.

Before marching his committee through a relatively calm, quick day and a half mark-up, House Agriculture Committee Chairman Combest modified his original concept paper to richen a few points after the Congressional Budget Office scored for budget purposes the first version below initial estimates. Testing the limits of White House veto threats, the Senate finally dropped its desire to add $2 billion to the House-sized FY01 supplemental farm assistance package; $5.5 billion, on top of the regular AMTA payments is still a hefty amount, even in Washington.

Of the farm-bill-after-farm-bill constants - the things that determine what goes into those pieces of legislation - money is surely one. But rarely in my experience have we seen it take such a strong grip on the process.

In previous months, I have thought much about alternatives to traditional commodity program spending, specifically my belief that we need a counter-cyclical income support program, as in the House bill. I envisioned it over the long term as a replacement for the AMTA payments, arguing that better policy kicks in when prices tumble and does not simply churn out checks. The current policies do very little to uplift prices in the marketplace. Also, I have long supported targeting spending to smaller and medium-size farmers most in need, but it appears I will once again be a lone voice - this standard is unlikely to be adopted in any meaningful form.

I am encouraged that conservation programs have climbed in the priority list. However, if not accompanied by incentives to protect the sustainability of the land and if allowed to become mere proxies for other forms of income support, no one will be well served.

The large amounts spent during the freedom to farm era attracted some who have historically resisted federal assistance, a trend bearing watching. Fruits and vegetables growers, supported by their Senators and members of Congress, are dropping their reticence at demanding a share of the federal farm budget. And once started down this path, they will find it hard to turn back. That poses some interesting questions for the traditional center-of-the-country farm coalition: Do they resist the specialty crops encroachment on their turf or welcome them for the votes they can bring to passing future farm bills?

As much as we heard it in some of the rhetoric about problems in farm country, the House barely took notice of farm trade policy and trade programs, it simply added to their budgets. Some say trade fatigue has set it - what is it, and has it? Meanwhile, some observers already are whispering this bill will have to be rewritten once a new WTO deal is done.

Iíll talk more on why you might watch the happenings at the WTO meetings overseas, as well as Washington, next month. AM

Dan Glickman served as the U.S. Secretary of Agriculture from 1995-2001. He currently is an attorney with the Washington, D.C.-based law firm Akin, Gump, Strauss, Hauer & Feld and is a member of Doane Agricultural Services Co.ís Advisory Council.


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