U.S. Agriculture Secretary: Congress looks over Schafer's shoulder
WASHINGTON - Congressional agriculture leaders moved from crafting a farm bill to skeptically watching Bush administration officials put it into action.
Congress used two veto overrides to make the sweeping agriculture policy law. It dictates everything from how much taxpayer subsidy a corn farmer receives to the level of aid given food stamp recipients.
Now, after two years of negotiating, vote gathering and politicking about the legislation's importance to millions of Americans, Upper Midwest lawmakers who played a big role in the process are left watching from the outside as the nearly $300 billion package is carried out.
Leading that effort is President Bush's agriculture secretary, North Dakotan Ed Schafer, who for the next seven months will oversee implementation of new crop, conservation, food assistance, renewable energy and forestry programs.
The former North Dakota governor's Department of Agriculture office is just down the street from the Capitol, where lawmakers wrote a bill that could withstand Bush administration objections, but he said his agency will implement the package professionally, not politically.
"The politics are over now. The policy's done," Schafer said in an interview. "Our effort here is to implement it to the extent we've been given."
Sen. Kent Conrad, a North Dakota Democrat and key negotiator on the bill's funding and its disaster aid provisions, was ready to take Schafer at his word that the Department of Agriculture will do as Congress intended.
"I have more confidence that that will happen because Secretary Schafer is there, but I also know he does not have a free hand within the administration," Conrad said after he traded stories about the farm bill process with durum wheat growers in his Capitol Hill office.
Conrad supported Schafer's appointment to the Cabinet and continues to back the former North Dakota governor despite the two being frequent adversaries in the past. They also are former brothers-in-law.
There have been farm policy implementation problems before, Conrad said. Congress fought with a budget office outside the Department of Agriculture over the last package of farm policies.
"We have to be on guard," he said, adding lawmakers made sure there was little room for interpretation in some controversial programs, including sugar provisions and a new permanent disaster aid program.
That disaster program, designed to pay crop and livestock farmers for losses resulting from natural disasters, already has become a flash point early in the law's implementation.
The Bush administration, which opposed a permanent program, said the way Congress wrote the program into the agriculture package means farmers must wait a year following a disaster to receive assistance. Some lawmakers already want federal officials to consider giving disaster victims advance payments, while others said it is too soon to judge the program's need.
"Our job is to go back and push to see what folks need," said Sen. Norm Coleman, R-Minn., referring to recent Midwest flooding.
After months of stalled negotiations, Congress passed a farm bill and then overrode a Bush administration veto in May. A technical error prompted a second bill passage, veto and an override last month.
Schafer already met with congressional agriculture leaders such as U.S. Rep. Collin Peterson, DFL-7th District, who said that was not the end result he envisioned when he took over as House Agriculture Committee chairman last year.
"I knew it was going to be difficult," Peterson said of negotiations with the White House. "I had no idea how it was going to go, so the way it happened, it just happened."
Peterson said the failure to get a bill signed into law was partially the result of a conflicted White House, where some Bush officials wanted an agreement and others did not.
"I always thought at the end that they would become practical and reasonable and sit down with us, and they didn't. That kind of surprised me," he said, sitting in his committee office between meetings on energy legislation.
Still, the Detroit Lakes Democrat said he believes most of the implementation should go smoothly and be completed by the end of the year. Farmers need to be familiar with the new programs when they plan for the next crop year, he said.
Peterson said the bill-writing process was more open than in the past, so Congress' intent for new programs should be clear. But he noted the Bush administration's opposition to the package, which "makes people skeptical about how they're gong to implement it."
Some lawmakers are still smarting over failed efforts to put tighter limits on federal crop production payments. While farm commodity payments make up a fraction of the farm legislation's total spending, it was among the most controversial aspects of the bill.
U.S. Rep. Ron Kind, D-Wis., said he failed to convince colleagues that at a time of record-high commodity prices, government should not dole out taxpayer-funded subsidies to wealthy entities and large agribusinesses.
"They kept saying, 'Great idea, we're with you, but five years from now,'" Kind recalled, saying some in Congress used payment reform as leverage to get pet programs into the massive farm legislation.
"Eventually they start peeling off and then reform is the last person standing," he said, "and you get kind of lonely."
But Kind, who represents parts of western Wisconsin, said many new programs are important, including conservation initiatives aimed at preventing marginal farm land from being billed for crop production.
Schafer said some programs will be implemented soon, but others will not be in place until after he and Bush leave office in January.
"We're not gong to put this stuff on the shelf and say, 'Oh, gee, we'll just wait until the next guys get here and they can take care of it,'" Schafer said. "We're going to run the programs. Some of it will not get done. I don't know how much."
On the Web:
U.S. Agriculture Department: www.usda.gov
Scott Wente works for Forum Communications Co., which owns the Bemidji Pioneer.