Article by: Jim Spencer

Their message: The law, dogged by election-year politics, affects the whole economy   

WASHINGTON - Minnesota farmer Dale Fladeboe hoisted a sign above his head that read, "Do you eat? You need a farm bill now."

Fladeboe was among hundreds of farmers from across the country who flew in to the nation's capital for a Wednesday rally aimed at accomplishing something that most political insiders believe is impossible: Getting the House of Representatives to pass a new five-year farm bill by the end of September, when the federal fiscal year ends.

"The farm bill has been passed by the Senate," said Fladeboe, who grows corn, soybeans, hay and alfalfa and raises cattle in Kandiyohi County, 100 miles west of Minneapolis. "It's being held up in the House because they want to cut it so much. ... I'm frustrated because of the inability of House members to cross [party] lines and see the importance of farmers."

Speakers at the rally, including U.S. Rep. Collin Peterson, D-Minn., echoed that sentiment. Peterson, the ranking minority member on the House Agriculture Committee and the author of much of the bipartisan farm bill that passed the committee, called on the crowd of several hundred to call their representatives and tell their friends to do the same. So far, Peterson said, there has been no groundswell of grass roots pressure on the House to act.

Peterson believes Republicans in charge of the House will pass a drought relief bill and extend the existing farm bill, waiting to see if their party will take the control of the White House and Senate in the November election. If that happens, he predicted that the Republicans will gut the farm bill passed by the Senate and a slightly different House version passed by the agriculture committee.

"There will be no good outcome from an extension [of the current farm bill]," he said.

In an interview, Peterson said the price the government must pay for milk will rise extensively on Jan. 1 without a new farm bill.

Also at risk, a series of Democratic and Republican House and Senate members told the rally, are programs that help farmers but also fund nutrition programs such as food stamps and land conservation that some House Republicans would like to cut.

Sen. Jerry Moran, R-Kan., challenged his party's leaders in the House to "bring their concerns to the floor" for debate and not to stall until time runs out for the fiscal year. "Hook up the implement and let's go harvest a farm bill," Moran said.

Peterson and Moran were among more than a dozen House and Senate members standing on an improvised stage near the Capitol that was decorated with bales of hay. Among them were Minnesota delegation members Sen. Amy Klobuchar and Rep. Tim Walz, both Democrats.

"I think people need to understand what this would mean," Klobuchar, a Senate Agriculture Committee member, said in an interview. "First, in farm states, it would be quite devastating not to have a farm bill. You look at the drought we've been seeing. You look at what it means to Minnesota's economy, not only for our farmers, but for our companies that are associated with farming.

"Secondly, the farm bill's a complex bill. It's not just about farming. That's only about 14 percent of the bill. It's also about conservation ... Minnesota's in the top five in the use of the conservation program. And last is things like school lunches. People don't always realize how interrelated the farm bill is to all of these other things in the American economy."

Walz, a House Agriculture Committee member, said the motivation behind the lack of action on the farm bill appears purely political.

"To be honest I can't figure out any other reason except that there are just some folks who just don't want to vote on anything before an election," he said. "It just has never happened before that we got this far on a bill and it didn't get done."

Despite all the rhetoric, the prospects for getting the farm bill out of partisan limbo any time soon remain grim.

"Our No. 1 priority is getting a farm bill passed," Steve Krikava, government relations director at Minnesota-based dairy cooperative Land O'Lakes said as he stood in the crowd. "But we were on the Hill ... and what we heard was that the chances of getting this voted on by the end of September are zero."