ag combibeHouse Ag Committee: Like a combine thundering through a field.By all accounts, Thursday’s House Ag Committee hearing on the Waxman-Markey climate-change legislation went as expected: angry men blustered and fulminated and generally vented spleen. (See the Wall Street Journal’s coverage here and here; Farm Policy blog’s summary; and here’s links to the testimony of the hearing’s carefully selected witnesses.)

Grist’s Kate Sheppard attended the hearing. She tells me that Committee members, especially Republicans, spent considerable time airing their doubts about whether climate change exists at all. Mostly, though, the farm-states’ finest got down to business: demanding that the legislation be tailored to reward the industry they more or less unapologetically represent: the agrichemical firms that dominate U.S. agriculture. Their agenda, as I laid out earlier this week, essentially rests on funneling carbon credits to a practice known to critics as “chemical no-till,” which sequesters little if any carbon but burns through copious amounts of Monsanto’s blockbuster herbicide Roundup.

The fight is essentially about who will control the role of agriculture in a cap-and-trade scheme. According to the incessant complaints of committee members, the legislation offers no opportunity for farmers to receive credits for offsetting carbon and reducing GHG emissions. That’s just false; the role of ag isn’t explicitly laid out, but farming projects are eligible for offsets. The catch is that judging the eligibility and value of GHG-saving activities would fall to an offset-review board within the EPA. The ag lobby finds that arrangement intolerable; Chairmen Colin Peterson (D.-Minn.), who has pushed the agribiz agenda on the climate bill with the force of a gigantic combine roaring through a cornfield, declared Friday that he doesn’t want that agency “to go anywhere near farmers.”

The push, as I reported in my piece earlier this week, is to create an industry-controlled regime for assessing ag offsets.

The main object of the committee members’ vitriol was USDA secretary Tom Vilsack. Representing the Obama administration, which has strongly supported Waxman-Markey, he must have felt like a mouse skittering about in a house full of hungry cats.

In a sense, the cats caught Vilsack and shared him for lunch. In one exchange–captured on an MP3 from Farm Policy blog–the committee’s ranking Republican, Frank Lucas of Oklahoma, pressed Vilsack on whether he supported Waxman-Markey in its current form.

“No,” Vilsack replied. “What I support is the notion that there is work left to be done” to make the bill more friendly to ag interests. He goes on to say if such interests aren’t accounted for in the bill’s current form, they will be in its final version.

Another rep, the sublimely named Jerry Moran (R.-Kansas), repeats that line of questioning at tedious length, wringing a similar concession from the beleaguered secretary. (MP3 here.)

For an idea about how much cash could be at stake, check out the testimony (PDF) of Roger Johnson of the National Farm Union, an enthusiastic proponent of carbon credits for industrial-ag practices. According to Johnson, offsets for practices such as chemical no-till could generate between $1.17 billion and $3.4 billion per year–a bit less than I might have guessed, which could explain some of the hearing’s relentlessly sour mood. But it’s hardly chump change.

All in all, the hearing didn’t seem to change the facts on the ground for Waxman-Markey as it moves to a vote on the House floor. To gain enough votes to push through, the bill’s proponents will likely have to cut a deal with ag interests. And if Vilsack’s testimony is any indication, those interests have got the Obama administration’s support sewn up.