Any legislator with budget issues about the Farm Security and Rural Investment Act of 2002 need only look at any other alternative to find something more expensive.

“Anything else anyone proposes will cost more than the farm bill we have today,” says Larry Combest, former U.S. congressman and chairman of the House of Representatives Ag Committee that developed the current legislation.

Combest, along with former House member Charlie Stenholm, is credited with developing the program and ushering it through Congress. Anyone who objects to how well it's performed simply doesn't like farm legislation to begin with, Combest said in a recent address during the Texas Commodity Symposium in Amarillo, Texas.

“It's WTO compliant and we can't go to one that costs less,” he said. “The act cost $17 billion less than originally projected.”

He said folks expected the program to cost more over the next two years, but “that's not happening. We're spending less.

“No other program in the federal government saves money the way the farm bill has.”

Despite some rumblings that the next farm bill will take significant budget hits, Combest remains optimistic that legislators will maintain the basics of a program that has worked for the good of agriculture and has done so economically for taxpayers.

“We're seeing a great deal of interest in bi-partisan support. That was the basis for success in 2002 and we're building coalitions and bi-partisan support (for the next debate).”

He said changes in leadership initiated by November elections may bode well for agriculture. Folks have to run again.

“In 2008, twice as many Republican senators as Democrats are up for re-election and a lot of those are in farm states.”

He said Republicans took some hard licks in farm (red) states in November.

“Rural America has always been a red area. A lot of analyses (following the election) showed that Republicans lost in rural America. That's a message.”

Combest said both parties will vie for that rural vote in coming elections and those in office will do well to “maintain what's popular. The current farm program is popular and anything else will not look as good. Congress will face that choice. So things bode well for the next farm bill.”

He said “strong fiscal conservative friends who want to do away with the program” need to say so. But the budget is not a reason to scrap it. “Our best bet is to take the current program and move forward with it.”

He said any farm bill that's not pro agriculture will not get through Congress.

Combest said farmers and ranchers should expect changes in the next legislation. Conservation interests will play increasingly important roles. The fruit and vegetable industry, typically absent from farm bill debate, will ask for a seat at the table. “They realize that international laws affect how they do business.

“Energy will be a key factor in the next farm bill debate. The energy title will expand dramatically.”

He expects debate on an energy policy that promotes self sufficiency and renewable fuels “from things that farmers grow.”

Energy may come more from crop residues, he said. “Parts of the crops we grow today have no use. In fact, it costs money to get rid of (residue).” In energy production, crop waste “may have value.”

Combest said a strong farm bill “will not just happen but will come because a lot of people put a lot of effort into it.”

He expects the next farm program to be “very similar” to the current one.

Combest said the Bush administration's approach to the farm bill debate “changed substantially November 7. A number of folks in the administration do not support an extension of the 2002 law, but the president signed it and any budget arguments they have don't old water.”

Combest said the Bush administration may offer “detailed suggestions” for the next farm bill. “But Congress will shape it and at the end of the day Congress will write it. We have a raw base of support for extension of the 2002 act,” he said.