First Farm Bill Debate Begins With Budget Markup

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Let the games begin. Legislators got their first look at how much money they'll get to play with in this year's farm bill debate with the release of budget figures this week. Senate Budget Committee Chairman Kent Conrad's, D.-N.D., proposal includes a $15 billion reserve for agriculture for 2007-2012. There's one catch, the money can't be spent unless the Senate and House agriculture committees can find savings elsewhere in federal spending or waive the pay-as-you-go requirement. It would take 60 votes in the Senate to waive the budget rules.

"So we have two farm bill debates this year: first in the Budget Committee to determine how much money we will have to spend, and then in the agriculture committees to decide how to allocate it," says American Farmland Trust president Ralph Grossi. "As the public, we have to decide how much money we want to allot to cleaning up the environment, improving our diets, helping rural development and feeding the hungry, and much more."

Tom Harkin, chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee, and Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.), ranking member on the Senate Agriculture Committee, sent a letter last week to budget committee leaders Conrad and Judd Gregg, R-N.N., asking for an additional $20 billion in reserves for agriculture. They got about 3/4th of that, not to the pleasure of Harkin. 

The senators pointed out that mandatory spending outlays under the Agriculture Committee's jurisdiction totaled $72.972 billion in FY06. According to the Congressional Budget Office, in FY 2017, mandatory spending by USDA is projected to account for less than 3.5% of the total mandatory spending by the federal government, assuming a continuation of current law governing such programs, down from 5.2% in FY 2006.

The Senate Budget Committee voted on party lines 12-11 to send the $2.9 trillion fiscal 2008 budget blueprint to the floor for action next week. The budget committee in the U.S. House of Representatives is set to begin work next week on its version.

Conrad's "chairman's mark" was immediately criticized by the Bush Administration's top budget official. Rob Portman, director of the Office of Management and Budget, said he was disappointed that Conrad's proposal failed to rein in entitlement spending and was "paved with higher taxes, higher spending and budgetary sleights of hand." 

According to a Reuters news report, said House Agriculture Committee Chairman Collin Peterson, D-Minn., is hopeful the House Budget Committee will offer new funding for agriculture if it can be offset elsewhere. He has asked for $6 billion over 10 years for renewable fuels specifically.

If the agriculture committee exceeds the spending limits set by the budget committee, it could be challenged on the House floor. Although there is support for renewables on both sides of the aisle, it may still be an uphill battle to get increased spending passed.

The House is expected to take up its budget resolution later this month. Budget resolutions are non-binding but outline Congressional intent for federal spending.

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