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Published September 17 2012

Forum editorial: Berg hard at work on ag bill

Congressman Rick Berg, R-N.D., is being ripped by Democrats because the farm bill is stalled in the U.S. House. Criticism of the one-term congressman by the U.S. Senate campaign of Democrat Heidi Heitkamp is an example of politics over substance. Berg is the Republican candidate for the Senate seat now held by retiring Sen. Kent Conrad, D-N.D.

Few in the House are working harder than Berg to force a vote on farm legislation. But, like colleagues on both sides of the political aisle, he is running into opposition from Republican leaders, specifically Majority Leader Eric Cantor of Virginia. Berg has been trying to work with farm-state Republicans and Democrats to move the House bill, which came out of the ag committee with bipartisan support. The Senate farm bill passed weeks ago with bipartisan support, including Conrad and Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D.

The stall in the House is a symptom of election year politics in part and a stalemate over proposed food stamp cuts in the bill. Republicans want to cut food stamps; Democrats want to hold the line. (The farm bill, by the way, is only about 20 percent programs for farmers engaged in production agriculture.)

Republicans control the House, so the onus for blocking a farm bill rests primarily with them. Despite criticism from Heitkamp and her supporters, Berg has pushed hard to get leadership to move. To charge he’s not been pulling out all the stops to advance farm legislation is not accurate.

For their part, Republican House leaders are playing a phony and risky game. First, they are suggesting a 90-day extension of the 2008 legislation will give farmers time to plan for next year. Nonsense, said Rep. Collin Peterson, D-Minn., former chairman of the ag committee. The old bill stays in place until the end of the year, so an extension is ridiculous. The problem comes on the 91st day, Peterson said.

Second, political risk for farm-state Republicans is no small matter. Berg, for example, is in a too-close-to-call Senate race with Heitkamp. Her campaign will hammer home a manipulated message that Berg has not delivered. A number of farmers and others who rely on a stable farm economy might be persuaded by her argument, especially since ag producers are confronting an expanding and intensifying drought.

Berg alone cannot convince Cantor to move a farm bill even if Berg’s opportunistic political opponents argue he can. No single congressman can accomplish that, and they know it. However, he has recruited Republican and Democratic farm-state and non-farm state lawmakers. They continue to make their case. But as long as House Republican leaders “keep playing all kinds of games,” as Rep. Peterson put it, Berg’s small coalition will be spitting into the wind.

Forum editorials represent the opinion of Forum management and the newspaper’s Editorial Board.

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