Sometime between now and Jan. 20, Bush administration officials will begin to realize the clock is running out on their time in Washington and start cleaning out their desks and making other plans.
That realization apparently is a ways off for Agriculture Secretary Ed Schafer, who seems to be operating under the illusion his USDA can still wield influence other than in how the Agriculture Department implements specific language in the 2008 farm bill.
Speaking at the Farm Progress Show in Boone, Iowa, Schafer scolded congressional leaders for what they put in the Food, Conservation and Energy Act of 2008, arguing such programs as the Average Crop Revenue Election and permanent disaster provisions violate World Trade Organization rules. “It's clear Congress didn't care much about the farm bill being WTO-compliant,” he said, citing the ACRE and disaster programs. He said the administration would go back to Congress to make the “appropriate” changes, although the chances of Congress reopening the farm bill are between slim and none.
It's possible Schafer, who became secretary only last January, could be invited to join a McCain administration if the Arizona senator prevails in November. But new administrations rarely take holdovers from the last. Instead, the new president will pick his own cabinet members, and a new agriculture secretary will implement much of the language of the new farm law, something Schafer alluded to in a press conference in Boone. (USDA is working on regulations for two farm bills - one for 2008-2009 and one for 2010-2012.)
Schafer's USDA has already had one run-in with congressional leaders over farm bill implementation. The new law bars payments to farms with 10 acres or less of program crops. When USDA said farmers could not combine multiple farms with less than 10 acres, farm-state congressmen from both parties complained.
Schafer's comments in Iowa indicate those disagreements may get worse. While the administration has been on the losing side of such WTO cases as the Brazilian cotton complaint, congressional leaders on both sides of the aisle have said they will not let the WTO write the U.S. farm bill.
The ACRE program, you may recall, is the brainchild of the National Corn Growers Association, whose members include large numbers of farmers in states represented by the chairmen of the House and Senate Agriculture Committees. The disaster program, on the other hand, was written by the chairmen of the Senate Budget and Finance Committees.
WTO Director-General Pascal Lamy has said he expects to convene another meeting of trade ministers later this month to try to revive the Doha Round negotiations that ended when India and China refused to lower tariffs for “sensitive” agricultural products in July. U.S. farm group leaders may be breathing a sigh of relief that this administration, at least, can do very little damage to U.S. farm programs no matter how badly it may want a successful conclusion of the WTO negotiations before it leaves office.