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Challenges to payment limits likely

U.S. farmers and their organizations “must be on the alert” for legislative amendments that could drastically reduce the benefits of their hard-fought efforts to pass the 2002 farm bill, says Sen. Thad Cochran of Mississippi.

Although the farm bill passed by decisive margins in both the House and Senate, Sens. Charles Grassley of Iowa and Byron Dorgan of North Dakota, authors of the Grassley-Dorgan payment limits amendment, have said they will re-introduce the amendment for the annual agricultural appropriations bill.

“We have to be pleased that enough folks realized it would have undermined the integrity of the entire bill to impose the punitive limitations suggested on the floor of the Senate this year,” said Cochran.

“We must be on the alert and be aware that such an amendment could be raised at any time on any bill that's going through the Senate.”

Speaking at a press conference following his keynote address at the Delta Council annual meeting at Delta State University in Cleveland, Miss., Cochran said he was happy to have another farm bill behind him.

A member of the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry, Cochran was one of the three Republican senators on the House-Senate conference committee that spent 10 weeks working on the final version of the farm bill.

“I'm glad we worked it all out,” he said. “It's a six-year bill, which means we don't have to revisit the fundamental provisions as a whole for six more years. At any time, somebody can offer an amendment to change any one part of it. But I'm hopeful we will prevail against any amendment that might be offered.”

Some analysts had expected Grassley or Dorgan to offer the amendment to the supplemental appropriations bill that is now winding its way through Congress. Cochran, the ranking member on the agricultural appropriations subcommittee, said that had not been the case.

“During the markup of the supplemental bill in the full committee, no amendments were offered on that subject,” he said. “But I don't think it's a subject that is going to go away, and we're going to have to continue to deal with that as a possible change in existing law.”

The senator said he remembers having to deal with payment limits when he first became chairman of the agricultural appropriations subcommittee several years ago.

“I had to get all the votes I could in a meeting of that committee to defeat a limitation of $20,000 that was offered by Sen. Carl Levin of Michigan,” he noted. “He didn't want any payment to any farmer to exceed $20,000 a year. If you go back in time, you can probably find other efforts made by other members of Congress to impose very severe payment limitations.”

Since Cochran's speech, Iowa's Sen. Grassley, a Republican, has said that he and Dorgan, a Democrat, would try to attach their amendment to the annual agricultural appropriations bill for the 2003 fiscal year.

The new farm bill President Bush signed May 13 places a limit of $360,000 per year on the various payments any farmer can receive on a single farming operation. The legislation continues the three-entity rule and allows producers to request generic commodity certificates when they exceed the limit on loan deficiency payments.

The Grassley-Dorgan amendment, initially approved by the Senate, would have limited a farmer and his wife to $275,000 in annual payments, eliminated the three-entity rule, and made it impossible for producers to use generic certificates. A $2.5-million adjusted-gross-income means test in the Grassley amendment made it into the farm bill.

“The so-called reform that finally passed won't even make big corporate farmers blink,” Grassley was quoted as saying at a Washington press conference.

Delta Council members applauded Cochran and other members of the Mississippi congressional delegation for their efforts on behalf of the farm bill.

“The economic condition of Delta agriculture over the past five years has deteriorated in a way which reflects the overall condition of agriculture throughout America,” said Cliff Heaton, Delta Council vice president and a farmer from Clarksdale, Miss.

“Although this shift in national farm policy alone does not insure the viability of U.S. agriculture, Delta Council views that the new six-year legislation is up to the challenges of falling exports, a strong dollar in overseas markets, and sophisticated barriers being imposed by our trading partners.”

Delta Council leaders also thanked outgoing President Ben Lamensdorf for leading the organization's efforts to help write the new farm bill.

“With the challenges of writing new farm bill legislation combined with the emphasis Ben has placed on education, healthcare and other emerging issues of Delta Council, I personally feel that history will be very kind and flattering to the year of Ben Lamensdorf as our Delta Council president,” said Bryan Jones, the new Council president and a banker and farmer from Yazoo City, Miss.

e-mail: [email protected].

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