While I was out•

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Sorry for the DC Dialogue hiatus. I've been spending time with my newborn son Josiah. While I was out DC has definitely been buzzin' with activity! A few of the highlights include an energy bill in the Senate, another failed Doha attempt, immigration reform and last minute scrambles for trade deals. Most notably is Congress beginning to really tackle this year's farm bill. Over the next few weeks I'll do my best to decipher the hodgepodge of policy information out there. For starters, let's take a look at what's going on in the farm bill debate.

In mid-June a House Agriculture subcommittee scrambled to pull off a markup of the Title 1 Farm Bill commodity programs. Instead of looking for an opportunity to make reforms, the subcommittee scrapped the draft originally prepared and passed a simple extension of the 2002 Farm Bill.

By passing a straight extension they have supposedly avoided what otherwise would have been the imposition of a 58% cut in the ag program budget baseline. In all likelihood, the last minute action was the result of an agreement between House Democratic leaders and the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) over how to avoid the otherwise unhelpful slashing of ag spending, according to World Perspectives Inc. CEO Gary Blumenthal.

The extension shuts down reform efforts including the Bush Administration's proposal, a Citigroup buyout scheme or the "Kind amendment" that would end commodity programs in favor of conservation spending and a revenue account.

Blumenthal writes while the subcommittee panel "was content with voting down the Administration's bill on a voice vote, a recorded roll call vote was held for the Kind amendment in order to build talking points for an eventual battle over the bill on the House floor. However, one observer said that the subcommittee's clear angst over the Kind amendment specifically and a floor battle in general will instead likely embolden opponents of simply extending the 2002 Farm Bill. The Kind Amendment--which almost derailed the 2002 Farm Bill--really scares farm state lawmakers.

"Republicans did some partisan jabbing and piled on the rhetoric about how Rep. Ron Kind (D-Wisconsin) is part of the majority and has more in common with his caucus members than do the Agriculture Committee Democrats. And the Democratic members, particularly Nancy Boyda (D-Kansas), one of the new members that brought her party to the majority, publicly pledged to lobby within the Democratic caucus against the Kind amendment."

A new report from the Environmental Defense shows farmers in most districts represented by freshman members of Congress would benefit if Congress shifted some farm subsidies to voluntary USDA conservation programs.

The study, "Freshman Economics: Subsidy Reform Would Help More Farmers in Freshman Districts," shows that farmers in 36 out of 55 freshman congressional districts would receive more support from USDA by shifting "direct" payments to provide more funding for voluntary USDA conservation programs. In addition, farmers in 12 districts would see little or no change from farm policy reform proposals.

House Agriculture Chairman Collin Peterson posted a full draft of the new farm bill late Friday night. The "chairman's mark" is pared down to conform to the Congressional baseline, including about $3 billion in additional spending for which the committee has clearly identified savings from other programs. In addition, the draft includes an "en bloc" amendment with above baseline spending that has been requested during subcommittee deliberations. That amendment will be ready in the event that addtional savings can be found before the bill goes to floor debate.

The full House Agriculture Committee will begin deliberations based on the chairman's mark beginning July 17. Amendments will be voted on during the three days the committee marks up the bill. The drafts and fact sheets are online.

The chairman announced he plans to issue two mark-ups for consideration by the full House Agriculture Committee, one that assumes the current budget baseline and one that includes extra authorizations in the event the Committee can find offsets necessary to tap into the so-called farm bill "reserve fund," worth up to $20 billion. The federal budget has been the biggest roadblock in the 2007 Farm Bill negotiations thus far.

Peterson proposal extends the safety net programs authorized in the 2002 Farm Bill with minor changes. It increases target prices for wheat, barley, oats, oilseeds and soybeans, which increases producers' opportunity to receive countercyclical payments when prices are low and continues support for farmers through direct payments. He said target prices for wheat and soybeans will be increased to $4.15 and $6.10 respectively.

A hot topic on conservation - the Conservation Security Program - made it in Peterson's mark-up. However, he suggests to collapse the three-tiered system and replace the structure with an annual stewardship enhancement payment to compensate producers for new and ongoing implementation and maintenance of conservation practices and activities. It also allows for contract modification of existing contracts for farmers participating under the old CSP program.

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