Congress carefully watching farm bill

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WASHINGTON -- Congressional agriculture leaders moved from crafting a farm bill to skeptically watching Bush administration officials put it into action.

Congress used two veto overrides to enact the sweeping agricultural policy law. It dictates everything from how much taxpayer subsidy a corn farmer receives to the level of aid given food stamp recipients.

Now, after two years of negotiating, vote gathering and politicking about the legislation's importance, upper Midwest lawmakers who played a major role in the process are left watching from the outside as the nearly $300 billion package implemented.

Leading that effort is President Bush's agriculture secretary, former North Dakota Gov. Ed Schafer, who for the next seven months will oversee the new crop, conservation, food assistance, renewable energy and forestry programs.

Schafer's U.S. Department of Agriculture office is just down the street from the Capitol, where lawmakers wrote a bill that could withstand Bush's objections, but he said his agency will implement the package professionally, not politically.

"The politics are over now. The policy's done," Schafer said in an interview. "Our effort here is to implement it to the extent we've been given."

Sen. Kent Conrad, D-N.D., a key negotiator on the bill's funding and its disaster aid provisions, was ready to take Schafer at his word that USDA will do as Congress intended.

"I have more confidence that that will happen because Secretary Schafer is there, but I also know he does not have a free hand within the administration," Conrad said in his Capitol Hill office.

Conrad supported Schafer's appointment to the Cabinet and continues to back the former governor despite opposing him in the past. They also are former brothers-in-law.

There have been farm policy implementation problems before, Conrad said. Congress fought with a budget office outside USDA over the last package of farm policies.

"We have to be on guard," he said.

That disaster program, designed to pay crop and livestock farmers for losses resulting from natural disasters, already has become a flash point.

The Bush administration, which opposed a permanent program, said the way Congress wrote the program means farmers must wait a year following a disaster to receive assistance. Some lawmakers already want federal officials to consider giving disaster victims advance payments, while others said it is too soon to judge the program's need.

"Our job is to go back and push to see what folks need," said Sen. Norm Coleman, R-Minn., referring to recent Midwest flooding.

After months of stalled negotiations, Congress passed the farm bill and then overrode a Bush veto in May. A technical error prompted a second bill, veto and overridein June.

Schafer has already met with congressional agriculture leaders including U.S. Rep. Collin Peterson, D-Minn., who said the bill was not the end result he sought when he took over as House Agriculture Committee chairman last year.

"I knew it was going to be difficult," Peterson said of negotiations with the White House. "I had no idea how it was going to go, so the way it happened, it just happened."

Peterson said failure to get a bill signed into law was partially the result of a conflicted White House, where some administration officials wanted an agreement and others did not.

"I always thought at the end that they would become practical and reasonable and sit down with us, and they didn't. That kind of surprised me," he said,.

Still, Peterson said he believes most of the implementation will go smoothly and be completed by the end of the year. Farmers need to be familiar with the new programs when they plan the next crop year, he said.

Peterson said the bill-writing process was more open than in the past, so Congress's intent for new programs should be clear. But he noted Bush's opposition to the package, which "makes people skeptical about how they're gong to implement it."

Some lawmakers are still smarting over failed efforts to put tighter limits on federal crop production payments. While farm commodity payments make up a fraction of the farm legislation's total spending, it was one of the most controversial aspects of the bill.