Mars Bars vs. Sugar Beets In Farm Bill

ONE afternoon this week, Sen. Rick Santorum (R) of Pennsylvania trudged into the conference room at the Senate Agriculture Committee and plopped down in his padded armchair. ''He's alive,'' quipped an aide. ''I'm surprised he doesn't have two black eyes.''

While no actual blows have been thrown, Capitol Hill is rocking and reeling these days. Day and night, in caucus rooms and cafeterias, members of the 104th Congress are sparring over the final details of a Republican plan to balance the federal budget in seven years - and, as Senator Santorum can attest, agriculture has been topping the fight card.

Santorum momentarily held up the entire Senate budget process this week by voting against his own party's proposal to cut $13.6 billion from the nation's farm subsidy program. Though the Senate Agriculture Committee finally reached an agreement on the legislation yesterday, the House wasn't able to do so.

This week's events demonstrate how unusually divisive farm programs can be. But they also suggest a more serious problem: The Republican pace of reform may be too rigorous, even by Republican standards.

''It's almost intractable,'' says Sen. Richard Lugar (R) of Indiana, the committee's chairman, of the farm debate. ''It's not the most important part of the Republican revolution, but it's an issue that always creates a lot of sparks.''

With the deadline for committees to report their final budget bills looming today, Republicans on all major committees are scrambling to produce plans that would meet the Republican budget targets set by the budget bill earlier this year.

Once every committee has reported their spending provisions, the 13 spending bills will be wrapped into one reconciliation bill that will receive a yes or no vote in each chamber and be shipped to the president, without amendment or discussion of specific items.

Even though the Agriculture Committee has reached general agreement on the legislation, members on both sides of the aisle express reservations about the speed at which the reforms are being hammered through, and the lack of deliberation.

''The cuts are just too large,'' says Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin (D). ''There's no chance for bipartisan negotiation or discussion. What we have here is not a farm bill, but a budget bill.''

At stake in the farm debate is the 62-year-old system of subsidy payments, set-aside provisions, import controls, and acreage reduction programs that government has used to protect farmers in lean years, stabilize consumer prices, and spur exports.

On the surface, the system seems like a prime target for Republican revisions. Not only is it a bureaucratic monolith that costs taxpayers billions, but it ignores market realities, encourages what some consider destructive farming practices, and bogs farmers down in reams of regulation.

But in reality, the farm program is a political gorilla. No matter what their political leanings, members of Congress find themselves divided on farm reforms depending on what crops their states or districts produce. In other words, geographic boundaries transcend party lines.

Consider Santorum. Normally one of the GOP leadership's most reliable young foot soldiers, Santorum ripped the committee's proposal, authored by Senator Lugar, because, he says, it's too soft on sugar and peanut growers. While Santorum says his opposition is partly driven by his desire for fiscal discipline, he admits a political connection back home.

Pennsylvania is the nation's fourth-largest dairy producer, and the Lugar proposal hit that sector particularly hard. In addition, the Keystone State is home to major confectionary companies, including the Hershey Food Corporation and an operation of M&M/Mars, that stand to earn millions more if price supports on sugar and peanut crops are dismantled.

''I thought we needed to have equitable reform across the board,'' Santorum says, ''but peanuts and sugar are taking a walk.''

Santorum's main opponent in the Senate was Sen. Larry Craig (R) of Idaho, whose state contains 600,000 acres of sugar beets. Such conflicts are ubiquitous in the Senate, notes Iowa Democrat Harkin, because ''everybody in the Senate has agriculture.''

While the Senate seems to have worked out its problems, the quagmire in the House remains deep. Rep. Pat Roberts (R) of Kansas, chairman of the House Agriculture Committee, was unable to win support for his Freedom to Farm Act this week. The bill would have cut support payments, but freed farmers to plant whatever crops they wanted on however much land they deemed fit. It was widely hailed by Republican leaders as a sensible, market-based approach.

But the bill failed in committee, largely because four Republicans from cotton-growing states - concerned that payment reductions would affect cotton disproportionately - voted against it. Unable to cobble together a compromise, Rep. Roberts Wednesday gave up entirely, and decided to cede responsibility for the cuts to the House Budget Committee, whose chairman, Rep. John Kasich (R) of Ohio, warned dissenters that ''cotton ain't king in the Budget Committee.''

Late Wednesday, House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R) of Georgia reportedly briefed senior aides about ways the four GOP dissenters might be punished.

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