A Call with the White House!

I do believe I've hit the pinnacle of my profession. Yesterday I got an email inviting me to participate in a "White House Farm Bill Bloggers Conference Call". Evidently, they haven't read the many blog posts we've posted in direct conflict with stated White House positions, and seem to think that we'll just be on board with whatever they say since we support the upcoming White House veto. Even though I suspect participation could put me under surveillance for decades, when El Presidente needs me, I'm there.

I'm on the call right now, and some dude from the White House just got done with an overview of the process so far. Pretty dull and predictable. Now Chuck Conner, deputy USDA secretary (and former Acting Secretary) is talking specifics, and I, as always, am ready to cast a skeptical eye. Mucho paraphrasing to follow. Highlights:

  • Chuck Conner mentions the increased loan rates, but does not mention that payments tied to those rates are not being made to high prices. he also doesn't mention their primary objection there is WTO-related.
  • Chuck mentions record farm income nationally and how that means subsidy spending should be cut, but fails to mention that USDA's own proposal asked for a dramatic increase in direct payments, which are paid no matter what and are about $5 billion per year right now- most of all farm subsidies paid right now. However, direct payments are nominally considered "WTO-friendly", so the Bushies would like to increase the payments.
  • Now he's going on and on about a $200,000 income limit, which we have noted is weak and ineffective. Of course, the higher limits proposed in the conference report by Congress are even worse.
  • Chuck says Congress "totally dropped the ball" on the AGI limit issue. Hard to disagree with that, but that's not the only ball they dropped, for sure.
  • Chuck bashes the sugar to ethanol program, which is not something we work on a lot, but it does seem to be quite a boondoggle for a fairly small number of people.
  • Chuck mentions some salmon part of the farm bill (I'm not familiar with it) that include payments to "pay fisherman not to fish". Well, that sounds a lot like direct payments, which are paid to farmers whether they actually plant a crop or not. Again, those would be the payments that the administration wanted to increase. I'll try to ask a question about that.
  • The White House guy mentions an expansion of the Davis-Bacon Act as something they really object to. Gee, it would just be terrible if people would have to be paid a living wage while constructing an ethanol plant built with federal subsidies.

My first question: Is there anything in the nutrition, conservation or rural development titles that you would consider grounds for a veto by themselves? Or are the administration's veto principles contained with the commodity title?

A very paraphrased answer: On nutrition, they actually took some of the administration's proposals, so we don't have any problem with that title.

On conservation, they made some improvements and tried to write a good conservation title, we do have some objections and it is not the title we would write, but that's certainly not where our veto objections are.

On rural development, there is very little rural development money in this bill, and we had supported a vastly higher amount of funding for rural development in our administration's proposal for sewer projects, etc. But Congress could find only a tiny amount of money for rural development because they couldn't even take money from the richest Americans.

Tom Philpott of Grist just asked a couple of good questions on ethanol and trade- unfortunately, he got stock political non-answers that totally indicate how little concern they really have for policy that supports family farms and people around the world (think typical free-trader crap language). I'll let him write it up on Grist if he wants.

Parke Wilde- Following up a little bit on what Dan asked, How can supporters in gains for rural development, conservation, and nutrition be assured giving at least tacit support to a veto will not undermine the gains they received in the farm bill already?

Super paraphrased answer- simply look at out policy book. We did more for nutrition, more for conservation, and certainly more for rural development than Congress has done. White House dude- I may concede that the farm bill in Congress is better in certain ways than the 2002 bill, but I would argue that the President's proposal (from last spring) is much better on those three topic than what is before Congress today.

That's some damn political junk, but still reinforces the message that the administration basically accepts the conservation, nutrition and rural development title as written by Congress.

This is the question I didn't have the chance to ask: You mentioned record farm income and how that is an argument for lowering subsidies, but the administration's own proposal recommends dramatically increasing direct payments- the only payments being made right now, in a time of record high prices. Additionally, you mention a salmon provision that will "pay fisherman not to fish". Isn't that basically the same as direct payments?

Overall, it was a predictable conversation, and I'm not sure if it's worth the increased surveillance activity of my person sure to result. And I don't want to hear any more about how a sustained veto would just be so awful for the priorities of the sustainable ag and nutrition community. If a veto is sustained and farm bill negotiations start back up again, the gains in the nutrition, rural development, and conservation titles of the farm bill in Congress will not be under threat from the White House (If they do come under attack, you can definitely blame our so-called Congressional allies, who are desperate to override a veto right now).

The subsidy reforms we would like are not in accordance with what the White House is pushing, either. Which stinks, because we won't have their support, but no matter. We will fight for what we believe is right no matter the views of the President or Congress.

UPDATE: Elanor of Ethicurean fame mentions in the comments the salmon payments are probably in response to a dramatic drop in salmon populations along the West Coast, which in turn has shut down the commercial fishing industry. So something along the lines of a disaster payment would be a better analogy than direct payments, and the salmon payments are perhaps more defensible than even disaster payments. I never like things stuck into bills at the last minute without any sort of public scrutiny, but it sounds like this may not be the worst thing. Also, a couple of hundred million bucks for the salmon people is peanuts compared to the $5 billion per year in direct payments USDA sends out.

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