Farm bill conferees formally agreed Monday on a core bill that would include a $4 billion disaster aid package, while House Ways and Means Chairman Charles Rangel agreed to find offsets to pay for that program and the rest of a $10 billion increase over the next 10 years.
But Rangel said he does not have the authority from House Speaker Pelosi to raise taxes to offset an additional $2.5 billion in agricultural tax breaks included in the Senate-passed bill.
Senate Agriculture Chairman Tom Harkin, who chairs the conference, said it would reconvene today at 9:30 a.m. and continue in marathon sessions until the bill is finished. The $10 billion increase would be on top of a $597 billion baseline for the farm bill.
House Agriculture Chairman Collin Peterson said he would participate in those conferences but warned Harkin that until the exact offsets are agreed to, it will be difficult to get conferees to finalize titles of the bill.
An extension of the 2002 farm bill expires Friday, and Congress is under pressure to get close enough to a final agreement by the middle of the week so congressional leaders and President Bush will agree to a short-term extension to finish the bill.
Last week, the House proposed a $5.5 billion increase in farm bill spending over 10 years and leaving out the disaster aid and tax packages that were in the Senate-passed bill.
On Friday, the Senate made a counteroffer of a $10 billion increase with $4 billion in disaster aid and $2.5 billion in tax breaks on top of the $10 billion.
Peterson said the House conferees would accept the Senate proposal on the core bill with the condition that offsets be worked out, but would leave the fate of the tax breaks to the Senate conferees and the House Ways and Means conferees — Rangel, Ways and Means ranking member Jim McCrery and Rep. Earl Pomeroy, D-N.D.
Rangel said he can come up with the $4 billion for the disaster program. As for the different offsets the House and Senate have proposed, Rangel said, “There’s no problem that [Senate Finance Chairman Max] Baucus and I cannot work out.”
Rangel said repeatedly he wants to help get the farm bill passed. “It’s not that I am so straight no one has ever made me an offer,” he said. “I’m not the president’s best friend, but we can make him an offer he can’t refuse.”
But when Harkin told Rangel he did not care how the tax committees handle the offsets and tax package, Rangel began citing problems with the Agriculture committees’ approach since he fulfilled Pelosi’s request in the summer to provide $4.2 billion over five years or $11.5 billion over 10 years to pay for an increase in food stamps and other nutrition programs.
Rangel noted that most House Republicans did not go along with the offset he used at that time and said, if he had that to do over again, he would have consulted Republicans before the offset was used.
Referring to the $2.5 billion in tax breaks, Rangel said: “I don’t want to debate things the House leadership isn’t supporting. … I don’t feel we are part of the team. We are just the expediters.”
Rangel later said he wants to be “enthusiastic about what they’re asking me to fund. I want them to act like I’m here for an agricultural bill, not a tax bill. I want to get on the floor to explain what I did for the agriculture bill.”
Rangel also noted that Ways and Means members have other pending, unresolved bills and said, “We could put other things in it since no one cares.”
Rangel asked for assurances that conferees were in agreement on the importance of the tax package, but the reactions revealed splits between the House and the Senate.
Peterson said he does not believe the tax package belongs in the farm bill. House Agriculture ranking member Bob Goodlatte, who opposes the tax package, said his support for the overall bill still depends on the final product and the offsets. “I feel your pain, I really do,” Goodlatte said to Rangel.
Harkin, who was mostly silent on the fate of tax breaks, said earlier he believes the package could be added to a tax extenders bill.
Baucus, Senate Finance ranking member Charles Grassley and Agriculture ranking member Saxby Chambliss defended the tax package, but mentioned only a few of the 60 measures that are included.
Chambliss noted that a conservation easement program would allow agricultural land to remain “unspoiled.”
Grassley noted all the tax provisions are related to agriculture. A provision that would allow Conservation Reserve Program payments to be considered investment rather than self-employment income for Social Security recipients and the disabled will keep people from getting those payments cuts, Grassley said.
Aggie bonds would allow people to sell farms to young farmers and spread out the taxation of capital gains, he added.
“We’re at square one” on the tax package, Grassley said after the conference.
This article appears in the April 19, 2008, edition of National Journal Daily.