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Getting to know legislators seen as crucial for farm groups

There's an old saying heard mostly around minor league baseball stadiums and repeated mostly by folks who get a few cents per copy for every program they sell: “You can't keep score if you don't know the players.”

Anyone hoping to keep tabs on the doings of the 108th Congress might do well to invest more than the cost of a program into the effort.

It's a whole new ball game.

“We see a lot of new faces in both the Senate and the House of Representatives,” said John Maguire, vice president for Washington operations for the National Cotton Council. Maguire says it will behoove commodity organizations to get to know legislators who will serve on committees that affect agriculture.

Maguire, who Plains Cotton Growers Inc., president Mark Williams refers to as “the best agricultural lobbyist in Washington, D.C.,” addressed the PCG annual meeting recently in Lubbock.

The ongoing defense of the Farm Security and Rural Investment Act, signed into law just last fall and already under attack from legislators who would trim benefits, is an immediate concern, Maguire said.

“This time last year, we were waiting for the House and Senate Conference Committees to roll out the farm bill,” he said. “Now, we're defending a farm bill. We have challenges.”

One of the biggest may be getting to know the new players.

Maguire said control of the Senate reverted back to Republicans, but just barely, 51 to 48.

“We have 11 new senators, seven from the Cotton Belt.” Thad Cochran, Mississippi, chairs the agriculture committee and Tom Harkin, Iowa, serves as ranking member.

In the House of Representatives, Republicans gained a few seats and outnumber Democrats 229 to 205. Representative Bob Goodlatte, Virginia, heads the ag committee with Charlie Stenholm of Texas the ranking member.

Maguire said Representative Henry Bonilla, also of Texas, heads the Agricultural Appropriations Committee.

“This is the most bi-partisan committee on the Hill,” Maguire said. The committee consists of 27 Republicans, 11 from the Cotton Belt. Only one remains from the Congress that wrote the 1990 farm bill and 10 from the session that passed the 1996 bill.

Of the 24 Democrats on the committee, 13 are from cotton states. Two served on the 1990 farm bill session and seven helped craft the 1996 legislation.

“Of the 51 members of the committee, 15 are freshmen,” Maguire said.

Maguire said issues that affect agriculture include the fiscal 2004 budget and maintaining the farm bill.

“This Congress will see amendments and disaster assistance requests. Trade will be a big concern as will environmental and conservation issues.”

With that many new players in ag policy debate it's imperative for cotton farmers to have access. Maguire said strengthening relationships with legislators will be a critical issue for the national Cotton Council.

A lot is at stake.

The budget for starters. “We will oppose any cuts that require amending the farm law,” he said. Tweaking legislation passed last year would alter a commitment made to farmers for a long-term program. He also said that opening up debate on the farm bill could jeopardize some hard-won concessions.

“The farm bill was projected to have fairly consistent spending through 2012. If we get budget cuts, the out years face significant reductions, 20 percent or more.”

Maguire said the House has agreed to protect farm bill spending for five years but leaves the out years subject to reductions.

A Senate plan includes the Bush Administration's stimulus package and no ag budget cuts. But Senator Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, would like to add an amendment to chop out $1.4 billion with payment limitations and add that to conservation programs.

Maguire said that ploy may or may not work this year but that Grassley will not give up.

“Conferees are trying to find some middle ground,” he said, to get a budget bill passed. A big obstacle is the difference in proposed tax cuts, $7 billion in the House and $3 billion in the Senate.

“Any compromise will be difficult to pass,” Maguire said, “and they'll need votes from ag state representatives.”

He said the payment limitations issue, like a bad dream, will keep recurring over the next few years, regardless of whether Grassley is rebuffed this go-round or not. His limits would be a financial disaster to family farms, those his efforts are purported to save.

The proposal would put a $275,000 cap on any entity. Three entities are still allowed but the benefit per entity would be cut in half. A farmer alone would get $275,000. If a farmer and his wife operate separate farms, each would qualify for $275,000. If they farm together, they qualify only as one entity and a total of $275,000.

“That's troubling,' Maguire said. “In some cases, farmers could end up owing the USDA money.”

He said the reasons for Grassley's dogged insistence on applying strict payment limitations is that current levels “put upward pressure on land prices, which drives many family farms off the land.

“Grassley will be a challenge for the cotton industry for many years,” Maguire said.

“But we've found through surveys that farmers are making rational decisions with this farm law. Planting intentions reflect market projections and not farmers chasing program benefits. Farmers are not likely to chase loan rates of 85 percent of their crop value.”

Maguire said cotton is a target because of the high production costs and the assumption that cotton farmers get more from the program than do other commodity producers.

He said program benefits alone are not profitable. “Farmers are not clairvoyant. They plant, harvest and market over an 18-month period. They need an orderly marketing opportunity.”

He also defended farmers against the claim that it's unfair for a small percentage of producers to receive a large share of the benefits. “In fact, 38 percent of the country's farmers produce 92 percent of the food and fiber and receive 87 percent of the government benefits.”

Maguire also spoke to the possibility of changes being made to the recently passed farm legislation.

“Yes, it can be done and there are several ways to do it. A budget resolution requiring saving money can hit ag appropriations. Someone also can offer an amendment to pending legislation and alter farm law.”

Maguire said such an amendment must be attached to agricultural legislation in the House but can be tacked onto anything in the Senate.

“And a legislator can simply introduce a bill that would alter farm spending,” he said.

There's a lot proposed in the budget for fiscal year 2004 that would affect High Plains cotton, including cost-share funds for boll weevil and pink bollworm eradication programs. Funds to allow Farm Service Agency and Natural Resource Conservation Service to deliver programs are on the list. So are funds for ginning laboratories and export promotion.”

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