The Nature of Conrad's Game

Thankfully for me, I was out of the office Wednesday. As Brian Depew helpfully chronicled, new stuff has come to light, and now I get to weigh in with my thoughts. And let me tell you, I did not spend the past 14 months fighting for payment limits only to sit silent while certain elected officials undermine strong, effective payment limits. And that is exactly what is happening.

For all the political junkies, I explain in more detail the politics of the situation below the fold.

If they weren’t so disheartening, the media accounts would almost be comical. We have Chairman Harkin talking about the “key committee members” he’s been working with:

Harkin identified the “key committee members” as Sens. Saxby Chambliss, the committee’s ranking member and a Georgia Republican, and Kent Conrad, a senior Democrat on the agriculture committee.

Uh, right. And by “key committee members”, Harkin means “those committee members that worked to defeat my farm bill proposals for months”. And to a large extent, apparently succeeded.

And Kent Conrad mentions one of the real sticking points:

“The Senate Agriculture Committee farm-bill proposal released Wednesday would cap adjusted gross income at $750,000 for ‘non-farmers’ collecting payments, but senators are still negotiating an appropriate cap for farmers, a key senator said.

“Sen. Kent Conrad, D-N.D., said the committee bill would contain a payment-limitations provision that would lower the income cap for non-farmers who receive payments to $750,000; the income cap for farmers would be lowered from $2.5 million, though the amount is still under negotiation.”

You have got to be kidding me. THIS is a big point of contention? A weak, worthless income limit? For millionaires? I’m supposed to care about THIS? Moreover, the House pegged their sad-excuse-for-reform income limit for non-farmers at $500,000, and the Senate can’t even match that. Pitiful. Do these people in DC just not have anything worthwhile to discuss?

The real story here? The unholy alliance between Southerners and Northerners survives, unscathed by calls for reform. The fight over payment limits- and many other issues, like livestock competition measures- has never really been about the Southerners. Sure, they’re the vocal opposition. But Southerners don’t hold the chair of either Ag Committee.

They don’t have the majority of votes on the committees, either. But certain Northern Senators, like Kent Conrad, will bow to the will of the Saxby Chamblisses of the world in order to get a few more dollars for farm programs, with no regard for how that money is spent. It’s all about the dollar figure for them- the higher, the better. Put simply, it is all about the greed.

As my colleague John Crabtree pointed out recently, “Kent Conrad, Democrat of North Dakota, thinks it is better for his state to work with Saxby Chambliss, Republican of Georgia, to defeat the ideas of Tom Harkin, the chair of the committee from Iowa and a member of his own party. Iowa is practically neighbors with North Dakota, for God’s sake. What the hell is wrong with him?”

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As Senate Ag Committee Chairman Tom Harkin (D-IA) acknowledged today, a vote in the Ag Committee on the Dorgan-Grassley bill would have been very close. The possibility of losing such a vote means that it makes more political sense to simply wait until the farm bill reaches the Senate floor to vote on Dorgan-Grassley. It is harder to get votes for a Dorgan-Grassley amendment on the Senate floor if the Ag Committee has rejected the amendment, and it makes the inevitable conference committee much more difficult, because only Ag Committee members sit on the conference committee.

So you wait. And in this situation, the best thing you can do in committee is nothing at all. You simply go out publicly and say that the issue is too divisive within the Ag Committee, and the issue will be addressed on the Senate floor. You make no changes in payment limits at all- simply pass a farm bill that continues the 2002 payment limits provisions and fight like hell on the floor for real payment limits.

Because if you do make weak, ineffective changes on payment limits in the Ag Committee bill, all of the opponents of real payment limits are going to say that the Ag Committee dealt with the issue and the rest of the Senate should respect that. And when you get to conference committee, those same opponents will say that the conference committee should strip out anything passed on the Senate floor because, again, the Ag Committee has already stated its preference (they’ll say that no matter what, but it’s a lot harder to say that if the Senate Ag Committee simply did nothing at all on payment limits).

The ultimate point to take away from Wednesday’s machinations is that Senator Kent Conrad (D-ND) won. Period. Conrad has spent the past months working with Senator Saxby Chambliss (R-GA) to write a farm bill that is substantially different than the one pushed by Senate Ag Committee Chairman Tom Harkin (D-IA). Conrad and Chambliss essentially pushed to extend most of the current farm bill- especially farm programs- and add a permanent disaster program. Senator Max Baucus (D-MT) provided the money for the disaster program through the finance committee, but that wasn’t good enough for Conrad. Even if he votes for a Dorgan-Grassley amendment on the floor, his work to date has severely undermined the prospects for real payment limit reform in the 2007 Farm Bill.

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