Setting the stage for the first of many confrontations between the Democratic-controlled Senate and the GOP-controlled House, a House appropriations bill has stripped several key conservation measures supported by at least 43 senators from both parties.
The measures, which Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) has pledged to promote as the 1996 Freedom to Farm bill is reauthorized, are nowhere to be found in a House agriculture spending bill unveiled last week.
"This is a concern many of us have had - that conservation measures may receive short shrift," Rep. Ron Kind (D-Wis.), who is preparing conservation legislation in the House, told The Hill.
While agriculture issues easily cross party lines, Democrats are already quietly predicting they can capitalize on the conservation issue to help them in Election 2002, especially as President George W. Bush continues to receive criticism for his environmental policies.
Missing from the funding bill in the House is money to sustain programs to encourage farmers to voluntarily pursue conservation measures on their farmland, such as the Farmland Protection Program, Conservation Reserve Program, Wetlands Reserve Program and the Wildlife Habitat Incentives Program.
The absence of those funds worries environmentalists who say the programs have exhausted their allotted resources from the 1996 farm measure, meaning programs would be eliminated for a year-and-a-half or longer.
"Some of these programs would be zeroed out because they've reached their cap from the last farm bill," said Sarah Feinberg, a spokeswoman for the Environmental Working Group.
Rep. Henry Bonilla (R-Texas), chairman of the Appropriations Subcommittee on Agriculture, Rural Development and Related Agencies, contends that that is exactly why funds cannot be allocated in the appropriations measure.
"These four programs are mandatory expenditure programs. They require legislation to change that," said Taryn Fritz, a spokeswoman for Bonilla. "We, of course, think that conservation is very important, but this is not the place for it."
Fritz said the issue should be taken up in the farm bill and added that those farmers already participating in the conservation programs were funded to continue, but that they could not add additional acres. No new farmers could participate until funds were allocated in the next farm bill, Fritz said.
But Kind said farmers should not be forced to wait for payment while a new farm bill is debated, especially considering that the Senate is unlikely to complete the bill before next year.
Senators signed on to a letter dated May 22 - sent before the shift in power - urging the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Agriculture, Rural Development and Related Agencies to continue funding the conservation programs.
Since the Senate shift in power by the Democrats last week, Harkin has made it clear he will pursue increased conservation funding on his committee.
Kind is circulating a letter similar to the Senate version set to go out June 14, but it is directed at the Agriculture Committee instead of the Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee.
So far, the letter has more than 70 signatures, with 14 Republicans.The Hill: