House approves ag spending bill, cuts conservation

The House approved the FY2006 agricultural appropriations bill. The good news is that it would provide $99.65 billion for programs operated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Commodity Futures Trading Commission and the Food and Drug Administration. The bad: it will cost $99.65 billion.

As a longtime Washington lobbyist for a major commodity organization once said, people are always happy for the government to give them “stuff.” But this gift couldn't come at a worse time for farm organizations.

House Agriculture Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., has announced he will hold hearings on the 2007 farm bill this fall. And Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns has said USDA will conduct a series of listening sessions on the new farm bill beginning soon.

Since you can't limit testimony at the hearings and listening sessions to farmers, you can bet farm program critics will be holding up the $100 billion spending figure as an example of what's wrong with farm programs.

And it won't help that the FY06 spending bill contains less funding for conservation programs than last year's although congressional leaders and administration officials touted the 2002 farm bill for its “greenness.”

Congress has, in fact, cut conservation programs by $3.8 billion since the passage of the 2002 farm bill, according to the American Farmland Trust.

The farm bill signed by President Bush in May 2002 was supposed to include $13 billion in additional spending for conservation programs through 2007 — 80 percent more than the amount authorized in the 1996 farm bill.

Shortly after the House passed the FY 06 ag appropriations bill 408-18, the American Farmland Trust, the Soil and Water Conservation Society, the Soil Science Society of America and the National Association of Conservation Districts sent a letter to the Senate Agricultural Appropriations Subcommittee asking it to restore the cuts.

The latter is expected to take up the fiscal year 2006 agricultural appropriations bill on June 21 with the full Senate Appropriations Committee scheduled to consider the bill two days later.

The conservation groups note that the spending cuts, which they said could total $464 million in FY 06, are being made while surveys indicate that 85 percent of voters say they are willing to pay farmers for conservation practices on working lands.

The House bill increases funding for the Animal Plant Health Inspection Service by $35 million to $849 million, the Agricultural Research Service by $164 million to $1.124 billion, Farm Service Agency salaries by $25 million to $1 billion and provides $1.250 billion for the PL-480 program.

House members also defeated attempts to eliminate $200 million for the Market Access Program, cut the sugar loan program by the equivalent of 6 percent and remove a provision delaying the implementation of mandatory country-of-origin labeling of meat products.

But it's the conservation programs that the Environmental Working Groups, the Defenders of Wildlife and the Sierra Clubs will use to beat up on farm programs in the months between now and 2007.

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