- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 10, 2002

Senate Democrats put together an election-year farm bill designed to please everyone concerned, from farmers to environmentalists and anti-hunger advocates. Only it didn't add up.
A $6 billion error by congressional budget analysts has sent Democrats scrambling to rewrite their plans for negotiating a final bill with the GOP-controlled House. It has also left Republicans crowing that the Senate bill had been phony all along.
The blunder, disclosed late last week, means that a Senate-passed overhaul of agriculture and nutrition programs exceeds a congressionally mandated spending limit by $6.1 billion, or about 8 percent. A House-passed bill complies with the cap.
"We've got to find a way to deal with it. I don't have an answer," said Sen. Kent Conrad, North Dakota Democrat. "There's going to have to be give in a lot of places. That's just the reality. That's a lot of money, $6 billion."
Had the error been discovered before the Senate voted on the bill last month, its Democratic authors would have been forced to scale back the spending because Republicans could easily have blocked it on procedural votes.
The bill "wouldn't have passed the Senate. It was a phony in regards to the budget," said Sen. Pat Roberts, Kansas Republican. He said that it is now less likely that Congress can finish a new farm bill in time for it to take effect for this year's crops.
Indiana Sen. Richard G. Lugar, the senior Republican on the Senate Agriculture Committee, demanded that the Congressional Budget Office explain by tomorrow how the mistake was made and when it was discovered. He said the error has "enormous implications" for the legislation.
A House-Senate conference committee that is reconciling differences between the two bills is scheduled to have its first meeting on Wednesday. But Congress is beginning a two-week Easter break on March 22.
The mistake has left environmentalists and nutrition advocates worried that Mr. Conrad and other Senate negotiators will trade away the hefty increases in conservation and food-stamp spending to win support from senators representing urban states.
The Senate bill would increase spending on conservation and nutrition programs by nearly $30 billion over the next 10 years, about twice as much compared with the House bill. At the same time, senators also intended to give a quicker, election-year boost in subsidies for grain and cotton farms, creating a new $2 billion subsidy program for dairy farmers.
The error occurred in calculating the cost of a program that provides fixed annual payments to farmers.
Under a congressional budget agreement, lawmakers cannot increase government food and farm spending by more than $73.5 billion over the next decade. That was the cost estimate for the Senate bill before the error was disclosed Thursday. The bill's cost has now ballooned to $79.6 billion under the budget office blunder. Of the $6.1 billion overrun, $2.6 billion would occur in 2002 and 2003.
The disclosure provided a measure of vindication to Republicans, who had questioned how Democrats had managed to stay within the spending limit.

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