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WASHINGTON PERSPECTIVES
FARM BILL: MORE POLITICS THAN POLICY
Farm bill politics usually has its own rules and rivalries; the fault lines and coalitions usually lie around regional and commodity lines. Traditional partisan-Republican versus Democrat-politics arise at times, but not generally to the level evident in other legislation and debates - except this year. Most farm bill watchers agree that this was the most partisan political of any in recent memory. Republican versus Democrat politics far overshadowed the regional differences and debates that typically accompany farm bills.

A number of factors contributed to this outcome. For one, the two houses of Congress were in different hands, the Senate coming into Democratic control only by the remarkable shift of alliance of Senator Jeffords, also known for his strong identification with dairy policy and dairy politics. For another, the bill was completed on the eve of senatorial elections in key states where many political analysts believe farm bill politics can tip the balance and thus the potential balance of power in the Senate.

I think most have overestimated the farm bill's importance to the upcoming Senate races. In many instances, the likely opponents allied themselves on the most contentious farm issues. In others, candidates of one party voted similarly to popular same-state incumbents to avoid challenge. In my view, farm bill politics is unlikely to sway many voters in these races, which will be contested on other factors.

PARTISAN BATTLES

Already, the lines for a partisan battle are forming over a package of disaster assistance for 2002 crops. Included in the Senate version of the farm bill, the conference committee rejected it as too costly. The Senate agriculture committee held a hearing on crop conditions and the need for assistance, and members of Congress have begun adding their voices to the growing chorus calling for the 2002 crop package. With Congress in the midst of writing a bill to provide additional FY02 appropriations for the war on terrorism and recovery from the September attacks, farm disaster backers have a ready legislative vehicle for achieving their goal. At the end of the day, the Senate will almost certainly add a package to its bill, setting up a heated contest with House Republicans and with the White House. Given its willingness to accept the gargantuan price tag on the farm bill, most observers, including me, believe that the White House will accept the coming disaster package.

At the same time, Congress is readying work on the FY03 spending bills, including the agricultural spending bill. Although the cost of the farm bill might suggest otherwise, Congress is under pressure to keep the deficit down. That pressure will bear down on appropriations committee members - who frequently have different priorities from the two agriculture committees - as they craft their spending bills.

LIKELY OUTCOME

Look to see some of the big increases written into the farm bill under threat in the appropriations bill as those committees contemplate making cut backs to shift funds to their priorities and FY03 spending limits.

Given its signing-on to the farm bill's price tag, the Administration will face a tough job of finessing that commitment with its attempt to otherwise hold the line on the deficit - a balancing act Democrats will surely attempt to upset, particularly the Senate Democrats. The mix of those Senators and their political objectives, compared to the Administration's support for some of their opponents, has been another highly volatile ingredient making for the charged nature of this year's farm politics; look for it to play itself out right up to election day. AM


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