Wanted: Fiscally Sound Farm Bill

 

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I can't help but be puzzled at President Bush's newfound fiscal conservativism — just in time to veto two key pieces of farm legislation.

What, now we're going to hold the line on spending — with 14 more months in office?

I voted for Bush because I thought he was a conservative who would hold down government spending. Those have been my political beliefs since 1981, when I moved to the Beltway as a young journalist just as President Reagan was beginning his cost-cutting revolution. I quickly learned what the letters "RIF•bCrLf (Reduction In Force) stood for, as many of my new friends who had been lifelong bureaucrats were let go in a major government belt-tightening.

It dawned on me then that a smaller government with more emphasis on private entrepreneurship made sense. And despite a lot of good-natured ribbing from friends over the years I continue to believe that lower taxes and less government is better than Uncle Sam running your life. With growing entitlements in Medicare and Social Security, we cannot afford to keep spending more than we take in.

It's one of the reasons I'm all for a reformed, lower-cost farm bill that creates a true safety net for farmers who can get help when they need it, and not get paid when they need it the least.

Flash forward to 2000 when President Bush took office and immediately got amnesia, at least regarding his fiscally-conservative roots. That was especially evident in the 2002 Farm Bill, when he passed a bill that allowed pretty much everything plus the kitchen sink. No wonder so many farm groups want to extend it.

Just last month he bragged about how the federal deficit fell to $162.8 billion in the just-completed budget year - the lowest amount of red ink in five years.

At least President Clinton cleaned up the red ink on the federal coffers during his two terms. The improvement in the deficit this year does not mask the fact that Bush's economic policies transformed those budget surpluses of the Clinton years into record deficits and an unprecedented increase in the national debt.

Water Act... Drowning. So this fall we finally got a Water Resource Development Act (WRDA) bill passed through the senate. This bill was about five years overdue, so it cost a little more than a typical bill that passes every two years. Yet, the Senate overwhelmingly approved the WRDA conference report in an 81-12 vote. Likewise, the House of Representatives approved the WRDA legislation in August in a vote of 281-40. Then Bush vetoed it last week.

Now farm groups are scrambling the bombers, trying to get enough votes for an override. Without WRDA, our outdated lock and dam system won't get upgraded and expanded. We are slowly losing all our competitive advantages over other farm exporting nations.

Farm Bill veto ahead. Yesterday we had Chuck Conner, Acting Secretary of Agriculture, explaining how the president would veto anything that even looks like the kind of farm bill they are debating in the senate this week, because of its hefty price tag.

"We believe this bill simply makes a mockery of the budget process,•bCrLf says Conner (left). "It contains nearly $22 billion in budget gimmicks, and nearly $15 billion in new taxes. This is simply unacceptable. This bill might appear to meet the pay-go rule on paper, but it certainly does not meet the spirit of this rule. Instead, it makes a mockery of the process.•bCrLf

I'm not quibbling over Conner's arguments. Bush should veto this farm bill. Those tax increases are a red flag for the White House. The Finance Committee bill, which will be married with the farm bill, raises nearly $15 billion in new taxes to pay for new programs. "We don't believe other sectors should be asked to pay additional taxes for farm programs, especially when the current bill continues providing farm subsidies to millionaires living on Park Avenue,•bCrLf says Conner.

That's a swipe at the lack of payment caps in any of these farm bill proposals coming from congress. Apparently some of our politicians are afraid they may lose votes if those in the top 2% of tax brackets are asked not to take any more money through subsidies. How many real farmers are in that tax bracket?

It is disappointing, especially when you consider all the calls for reform that have echoed around the countryside these past few years. USDA's listening sessions allowed farmers to give thousands of opinions on farm policy. Many of those ideas were incorporated into the administration's farm bill proposal last spring.

The one true chance for reform in the senate farm bill — from Sens. Frank Lautenberg, a Democrat from New Jersey, and Sen. Richard Lugar, a Republican from Indiana — has very little chance of succeeding.

So now the question you have to ask is: Will we get a decent farm bill by the end of the year? Apparently the White House sent up its veto flag now to compel the Senate, and ultimately the House/Senate Conference Committee, to go back to the drawing board and avoid more political bloodshed.

But with Capitol Hill egos what they are, what chance is there now for clearer heads to prevail?

And while I am happy President Bush has found his fiscal conservative beliefs again, one still has to wonder at his timing.  

You can read the entire transcript of Conner's press conference here.

(Comment below, please)

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