Thanks to a little-noted amendment written by Senate Minority Leader Robert J. Dole (R-Kan.), the federal study on compost has been pitted against the national rose and flower study, chinch bug research and the cotton promotion report.
And to make matters uglier, the members of Congress who stuck those pet studies into the 1990 Farm Bill -- at an estimated cost of $90 million to $100 million -- do not even get to fight it out among themselves.
Dole's amendment gives the secretary of agriculture the unusual power to decree which of the 168 studies, surveys and reports in the bill will be done and which must die.
"It's going to be bloody when members get back and see the list that the secretary draws up," predicted an aide on the House Agriculture Committee.
"Up here, when a congressman can't get legislation, you can always give him a federally funded study. You start taking those studies away, you're going to see some frothing at the mouth."
Dole put his amendment into the farm bill this fall, while members of the House and Senate were wrangling over the legislation in a conference committee.
Armed with Agriculture Department estimates of what it would cost to perform all the studies called for in the bill -- and noting that many of them are "duplicative and unnecessary" -- Dole offered an amendment that said the department could set priorities, confer with the chairmen of the House and Senate Agriculture committees and then choose which studies should be completed.
Only 12 studies have to be completed over the next five years, the measure said, but more could be added. Over at the Agriculture Department, the staff is taking the number 12 seriously, said John Campbell, deputy undersecretary for commodity programs.
"We've already had numerous meetings to go over the list and start the weeding out," Campbell said. "This was an amendment we thought never had a prayer of passing, but now that we've got it, it's both a blessing and a curse. We really have to choose now."
Campbell said some studies may be combined, and others may be cut because commodity groups could pay for the studies themselves. Cost will be a factor. Some studies call for easily gathered statistics, others demand more research, time and money.
Campbell reported that few members have contacted the USDA to plead their case, "but that's mainly because they just aren't in town," he said.
Some members may not know about the limits. The Dole amendment seemed to surprise staff members in the office of Rep. Doug Bereuter (R-Neb.). Bereuter sponsored two studies in the bill: one on semi-arid agroforestry research, another on chinch bugs -- little bugs that spend the winter in wheat, but eat sorghum.
"We were very pleased to get this research in the bill, but we would be very worried if we learned it's now uncertain," said Carol Lawrence, Bereuter's press aide.
Dole said his amendment was not designed to cause hard feelings.
"This provision removes some of the nonsense which an election year put in the farm bill," Dole said. "Many of these studies are duplicative and unnecessary and very likely will never even be read or used to shape future policy decisions."
But a House staff member warned that the department's job may boil down to deciding which member of Congress to anger.