Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin says the difference between the budget environment for the 2002 and 2007 farm bills is like night and day. Now it’s becoming obvious the same could be said for his and Rep. Collin Peterson’s views on payment limits.

Harkin, chair of the Senate Agriculture Committee, told participants in his weekly telephone press conference that, unlike 2002 when Congress was dealing with large budget surpluses, he’s having to scramble to find even a slight amount of new funding for the 2007 legislation.

Unlike 2002, he said, he’s having little trouble finding data to back up claims that the present commodity payments are concentrated among a few recipients. (From 2003-2005, he says, the top 1 percent of recipients took in an average of $377,484 each, while 80 percent received $4,500.)

“Is that fair or good use of taxpayer dollars? Of course not,” noted Harkin, whose fellow Iowan, Charles Grassley, has introduced legislation capping payments at $250,000 per individual and eliminating the three-entity rule and commodity certificates.

Contrast his comments with those of Peterson, the House Agriculture Committee chairman who recently unloaded on payment limit reform advocates who are “playing with fire and don’t know what they’re doing.”

Peterson, defending the House Committee’s General Farm Commodities Subcommittee vote to extend the 2002 law’s commodity title in his weekly tele-conference, said his first priority is maintaining the farm safety net.

“These cotton guys and rice guys are getting beat up over payment limits,” he said. “This is not their fault. They didn’t give away these markets. It’s Congress, and the trade deals we’ve passed.”

Each time the U.S. government negotiates a trade deal, he said, rice is immediately taken off the table as a sensitive product. “When the market does collapse because of this, and they have to use certificates to stay in business, they get beat up about it.”

Then there’s cotton. “We allowed the U.S. textile industry to completely abandon the country, and that market disappeared,” he noted. And we allowed the Chinese to subsidize their producers and basically keep our cotton out of their market.”

Those who don’t understand the situation will destroy the best, most efficient food production system in the world, he said. “I hope they’re held accountable when it falls apart, and farmers don’t get blamed again. Farmers are doing what they do, produce.”

Harkin told reporters he doesn’t expect the General Farm Commodities Subcommittee farm bill to pass the House without substantial change. Peterson said he wouldn’t make any changes in payment limit rules until southern groups tell him what they want to do.

“I’ve been telling people in my part of the world that want payment limits it was problematic because without Southern support you can’t pass a bill,” he said. “And I trust the folks that use these certificates to tell me what’s real more than I do somebody sitting in some ivory tower, funded by the environmental community.”

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