Flu Season, Turf Battles and No “New” Spending

There are those who are beginning to wonder if a new Farm Bill is just not fated to be, kind of cursed, if you will. If it isn’t a feuding Senate, then it’s the annual influenza plague that hits DC every February-March like clockwork, taking down the powerful and the not so powerful indiscriminately.

This week, conferees had to muddle through their discussions without Rep. Charlie Rangel (D, NY), chair of the House Ways & Means Committee, and the man who’s got to come up with the House’s magic formula by which we pay for a Farm Bill that all involved agree can soar $10 billion over budget. Rangel’s been down with the flu for the last two weeks and hasn’t been able to participate in discussions.

Then we’ve got the turf battles in the Senate. Like Ways & Means, the Senate Finance Committee is charged with finding its offsets to pay for the extra $10 billion, but what complicates the Senate “discussion” is that that Finance Committee Chair Sen. Max Baucus (D, MT) is also a member of Sen. Tom Harkin’s (D, IA) ag committee, and Baucus’ ally and buddy in the “talks” is Sen. Charles Grassley (R, IA), ranking Finance Committee member and also a member of the ag panel. Then throw in Sen. Kent Conrad (D, ND), chair of the Senate Budget Committee, member of the ag committee as well, and champion for $6 billion in permanent disaster program funding that no one can figure out how to pay for, and you’ve pretty much got a picture of Harkin trying to push a very big rock up a very steep hill.

This week, just as the boys and girls of Congress were packing their bags to head out of town for their two-week spring break, Farm Bill talks broke down, at least in the Senate, over which of the very powerful Senators — Baucus or Harkin — would decide how the Senate offset money once found will be spent. Grassley and Conrad, of course, are squarely in Baucus’ corner, offering to “help” with the offset problem, but only if they get a say in how the money is spent. The end result of this sparring is that talks ended with no resolution, with Harkin saying, “Once we start giving up jurisdiction to the Finance Committee, God help us.”

So, with Rangel in bed with the flu, Harkin and Baucus engaged in oh-so-serious talks about who gets to drive the Farm Bill spending bus, nothing much is happening, leading the House ag panel leaders — Chair Collin Peterson (D, MN) and Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R, VA) — to publicly speculate about working out a Farm Bill that actually meets it’s $280-billion budget because, as Peterson puts it, “No one has shown us the (extra) money.”

What a novel idea.

A so-called baseline spending bill isn’t going to happen because it angers too many special interest groups who’ve spent the last year and a half fighting for a bigger share of the federal spending pie. Look at the House speculation about no new funding as that call to arms needed to put pressure on the Senate to start acting more like legislators and less like the Hatfields and the McCoys.

President Bush signed a one-month extension of the 2002 Farm Bill this week, saying it would be the last short-term extension he’d sign. The next ag bill he signs, the chief executive said, will be either the 2008 Farm Bill or at least a one-year extension of the 2002 act.

Let the next Administration and the next Congress worry about it.

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