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Hacking away at the 2007 (Iraqi) Farm Bill
On Monday, May 8, USDA Secretary Mike Johanns took the Bush Administration’s first formal step toward the 2007 Farm Bill.

The small move arrived in the form of a lengthy white paper titled “Risk Management.” It is the first of several “2007 Farm Bill Theme Papers,” the Secretary noted, that he will release in the run-up to the legislative debate.

The foundation-laying papers, explained Johanns, are “not to suggest policy but to inform and educate the public ... My hope is that this analysis will help focus our national conversation as we work with Congress to develop future farm policy.”

Not to suggest policy but “focus the national conversation?”

Someone at USDA’s policy shop is watching way too much Oprah.

Arguably, Cabinet level officers have two key functions: develop policy and implement policy. Holding hands around the national campfire and singing “Kumbaya” isn’t part of their job description. Yet, according to the Washington Post, selling the increasingly unpopular war in Iraq to American farmers is part of Johanns’ portfolio.

In a copyrighted story May 8, Post reporter Al Kamen wrote of a May 2 e-mail from USDA speechwriter Heather Vaughn to “about 60 undersecretaries, assistant secretaries and other political appointees” explaining how to incorporate the White House’s “‘clear strategy for victory in Iraq’ in every speech they give for the department.”

The e-mail then included three pages of prescribed language that already is “‘being used by Secretary Johanns and deputy secretary Conner in all of their remarks and is being sent to you for inclusion in your speeches.’” (The story and the memo can be found at fedpage/)

For example, Vaughn helpfully explains, each USDA yakker should begin upcoming talks with this gear-switching introduction: “Several topics I’d like to talk about today - Farm Bill, trade with Japan, WTO, avian flu, animal ID - but before I do, let me touch on a subject people always ask about ... progress in Iraq.”

The USDA Iraq “talking points” memo then sports “specific examples of GWOT [Greater War on Terrorism] within agricultural speeches. Please use these message points as often as possible and send Harry Phillips, USDA’s director of speechwriting, a weekly e-mail summarizing the event, date and location of each speech incorporating the attached language. Your responses will be included in a weekly account sent to the White House.”

Oh my.

Not only is it the primary task of every USDA talker to now promote the President’s “strategy for victory in Iraq” into every speech “as often as possible,” they also must report back to White House scorekeepers who is on message and who isn’t.

The Post’s Kamen, quoting directly from the inane memo, has a field day with its suggestions on how to slip an Iraqi mickey into, say, a speech on “U.S. agricultural productivity. Try this: ‘I’d like to take a moment to talk about a nation that is just now beginning to rebuild its own agricultural production.

“‘Iraq is part of the ‘fertile crescent’ of Mesopotamia,’” the sample script says. “It is there, in around 8,500 to 8,000 BC, that mankind first domesticated wheat, there that agriculture was born. In recent years, however the birthplace of farming has been in trouble.”

Then, as an aside, Kamen writes, “Probably want to pause here and give the audience a chance to catch its breath. It’s hard to travel 10,500 years that quickly.”

After the pause, however, he returns to the USDA-provided script. “‘But revitalization is underway. President Bush has a clear strategy ...’”

None of this nonsense comes as a surprise to anyone who has followed the farm follies of this White House. After all, this is an Administration that, among other sins, didn’t even offer a farm policy blueprint during the 2002 Farm Bill debate; hasn’t found one instance of meatpacker wrongdoing since taking office and is selling U.S. cotton, soybean and sugar producers down the WTO river.

What is surprising, even shocking, however, is that most U.S. farmers and ranchers continue to wordlessly, almost worshipfully, accept these hacks’ always-politics, never-policy approach as the 2007 Farm Bill fight looms.

This farm news was published in the May 17, 2006 issue of Farm World.