Democrats, agri-business excluded from farm bill.
As republican leaders in Congress and the Clinton administration try to hammer out an agreement to balance the federal budget, Medicare and a middle-class tax cut are the issues getting the most attention. Going practically unnoticed is a major change in national farm policy packed away in the budget bill.
And what really has some Arkansas agri-business leaders and congressional Democrats steamed is that they were left out of the legislative process that developed the policy.
"I've been through [the drafting of] a lot of these bills," says Richard Bell, president and chief executive officer of Riceland Foods Inc. and former aide to presidents Nixon and Ford. "I've never seen one before where there were no hearings on the bills and you weren't even allowed to talk to the people who were working on the bills."
Stuttgart-based Riceland traditionally has had a major voice in developing aspects of farm legislation that deal with rice, thanks in large part to its relationship with U.S. Sen. David Pryor, a high-ranking Democrat on the Senate Agriculture Committee. Arkansas is the country's largest rice-producing state, and the Riceland cooperative is the largest rice milling firm in the United States.
"In years past, we in Sen. Pryor's office initiated the effort to put the farm bill together," says Miles Goggans, Pryor's former chief of staff and agriculture aide who's now a commodity broker and lobbyist, "We reached out to all types of farm interests and groups and held various meetings and hearings. In the end we had a core group of people that we worked with. Information flowed. It was extremely open. We all kind of camped out in the office together to put together the final product."
Goggans says the process was also very bipartisan, with Pryor delegating cotton issues to Sen. Thad Cochran, R-Miss., while Pryor's own staff worked on rice issues.
Bell chuckled when informed that one source told Arkansas Business that over the years Riceland Foods more or less wrote the aspects of the farm bill that dealt with rice.
"It wasn't quite like that," he says. "In earlier years we worked with a bipartisan group from Capitol Hill. I'll admit that we had a lot of influence, but we certainly weren't the ones that did it all."
The current farm bill - the Food, Agriculture and Trade Act of 1990 - was the last developed using that method. It expires Dec. 31.
The development of the new farm bill, called the Agricultural Market Transition Program, "has been a very peculiar, very disturbing process," Goggans says.
The die for the new farm bill was cast, Democrats say, when Chairman Richard Lugar, R-Ind., of the Senate Agriculture Committee testified at a budget hearing this spring that the farm program budget could be cut by $15 billion.
Andy Fisher, a former Lugar staffer who this week becomes a spokesman for the Senate Agri Committee, says Lugar "for a year held open hearings on every aspect of the farm bill. The chairman posed 53 questions to deal with in a review of the nation's agriculture system."
Fisher denies Bell's allegation that interested parties were left out of the process.
"Any person who was not a part of the development of the farm bill was a person who opted not to be a part," he says. "They had ample opportunity to be a part."
Another Capitol Hill source says, however, the hearings Lugar presided over didn't address farmers' needs but seemed geared toward asking such questions as, "Are Americans getting what they pay for out of farm programs?" and "Do we really need the programs at all?"
No Input on Bills
Bell says Lugar's hearings came before any legislation was introduced, so Riceland and others weren't given a chance to give views on specific bills. Riceland Chairman Tommy Hillman did testify at one of the Lugar hearings.
"It's not like [the Republicans] were trying to work out a farm bill at all," the Capitol Hill source says. "Everything was tied to the budget bill. It's more like they were squeezing all these farm programs through a little hole and just making the numbers work out."
Lugar's committee and the Senate approved a farm bill along the lines of one introduced by Pryor and Cochran that would continue tying commodity payments to market prices, meaning that when farmers can get higher prices, subsidy payments would be lower; low market prices would mean higher subsidies. But the bill called for much deeper cuts than Pryor and Cochran had sought.
The House Agriculture Committee couldn't agree on a farm bill and didn't recommend one to the floor. Eventually, the House approved a bill through the Budget Committee that was essentially the Freedom to Farm Act, which Chairman Pat Roberts of the House Agriculture Committee, R-Kan., had introduced in his committee. A version of the Pryor-Cochran bill got more votes in the House Agri Committee than Roberts' bill, but neither received enough for approval.
Roberts' bill wouldn't tie subsidies to market prices but would guarantee farmers "a predictable source of financial assistance for the next seven years" and allow them to "maintain their conservation practices and assume responsibility for the management of their own affairs."
The two bills were sent to a Joint Conference Committee to hash out a compromise.
"It all really came to a head in the conference committee," Bell says.
Pryor was named to the Conference Committee but says he never was invited to meetings and that Republican members met privately to decide how to achieve the cuts they wanted. Democratic members reportedly got copies of the final proposal at 4 p.m. on the day before the vote was taken.
"To me, when you have someone who's been named to the Conference Committee, especially someone like Sen. Pryor who has years of agriculture legislation experience, and then shun them, something's wrong," Bell says. "That's just terrible."
Pryor voted against the Conference Committee bill, which proposed to cut farm programs by $13.4 billion over seven years.
"I cannot vote to cut agriculture programs this severely," Pryor said at the time.
Noting that the Agriculture Department's budget already has been cut by more than half over the last decade, from about $26 billion in 1986 to about $10 billion last year, Pryor added, "The farmers and ranchers in Arkansas and around the country have been punished enough already ... Farmers are tired of taking more than their fair share of the cuts."
The Conference Committee came out with a bill that was basically the House version with some modifications in that it based payments on Congressional Budget Office price projections, which are due any day.
Fisher says that bill "is an excellent deal for farmers. They get guaranteed payments for seven years as they move to greater freedom to farm as they choose. They're going to make more money this way."
Bell suggests that this may be the case for wheat farmers in Roberts' home state. The summer drought jacked up prices but also left Kansas farmers with little to sell, so they'd appreciate guaranteed subsidies during a period of high prices.
"But traditionally," Bell says, "subsidies have been a safety net from falling prices."
One congressional staffer suggests the bill is a thinly veiled attempt to do away with farm programs entirely. If subsidies are given out even when market prices are high, he says, it will simply fuel the argument that the subsidies aren't needed at all.
"That may be a cynical attitude," Bell responds, "but there's a lot of truth to that in some quarters."
Most of the programs one would usually expect to see in a farm bill - the ones that require the most expenditures such as commodity subsidy programs and food stamps - are now part of the budget bill. Other aspects of agri legislation such as conservation, rural development and agricultural research have been set aside in what some Democratic Senate staffers call "Farm Bill II."
"It's expected that Congress will come back next year and deal with those issues," a White House source says. "But when items aren't in the budget bill, what chance do you think they'll have of being addressed properly?"
Fisher says agriculture wasn't treated unfairly by making most farm programs part of the budget bill.
"The same was done with every aspect of the entire federal system," he says. "The nation needs to balance the budget, and it needs to do it in seven years."
And what does that say about the importance of the farm bill? Says the White House source, "Agriculture definitely is not driving this train."
RELATED ARTICLE: Bell No GOP Ringer
Being at odds with the Republican congressional leaders who developed the new farm bill is something somewhat unfamiliar to Richard Bell, president and chief executive officer of Riceland Foods Inc.
Bell was an assistant secretary of agriculture under presidents Nixon and Ford.
"I've always been identified with the Republican side," he says. "But I have to say I'm somewhat more moderate than the present leadership. We're behind the [Clinton] administration now. They're our front guard."
RELATED ARTICLE: Democrats Not Only Ones Left Out
Everybody was left out of the process except the Republicans." one Democratic source on Capitol Hill says about development of the new farm bill.
Fourth District U.S. Rep. Jay Dickey of Pine Bluff, a Republican, disagrees.
"I got left out, too," he says.
As a member of the Agriculture Subcommittee of the House Appropriations Committee, Dickey expected to get to vote on the farm bill after it was approved by the House Agriculture Committee and before it went to the House floor.
When the House Agri Committee couldn't agree on a bill, aspects of farm legislation proposed by U.S. Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kan., were included in a budget bill, instead.
"I'm sure there was no ill intent, just a matter of time," Dickey says of the process. "Things are going so fast. We've voted on more than 800 bills in this session. I've been told by the Republican leadership that we [farming states] wild be taken care of. I've been told that because the president is going to veto the farm bill anyway, the process will start all over."
Well, not exactly. Because most of the important aspects of the farm bill have been lumped into the budget bill, the differing issues won't be discussed or voted on separately.
Dickey says that if the farm bill were to be considered separately, he'd vote against it.
"That's too drastic a hit on rice and cotton programs." he says.
But he'll vote for the budget bill even if it contains the farm cuts he finds unacceptable.
"All the good that's in a balanced budget overrides the negatives I see in the farm bill," he says.
Dickey says he's noted "an amazing lack of interest by farmers" on the issue. He's received only 10 phone calls about the farm bill, with seven against it and three for it.
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|Date:||Dec 4, 1995|
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