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Agriculture's hopes for 2001 farm bill fade

The debate over writing the 2002 farm bill in 2001 appears to be subsiding. Last fall, House Agriculture Committee leaders seemed determined to overhaul Freedom to Farm when they returned for the 107th Congress in January. But, the realities of politics are beginning to set in.

“One thing I have learned is that when it comes to farm legislation, farmers tend to fare better in even-numbered years,” said Mark Keenum, chief of staff to Sen. Thad Cochran, in a speech at the Mississippi Farm Bureau's Winter Commodity Conference.

Keenum said Congress will “lay a good foundation” with hearings on a new farm bill in 2001. But most of the heavy lifting will not occur until 2002 — when one-third of the Senate and all House members will be running for re-election.

House Agriculture Committee Chairman Larry Combest, who had been talking up a new bill in 2001, did not mention a timetable when the committee began hearings on new legislation Feb. 14.

Instead, Combest focused on consensus building. “I believe the best ideas are tested ideas,” he noted. “By fully vetting every idea with producers, I believe the consensus we build will be the right one.”

The National Cotton Council, the first commodity group to testify at the hearings, called for an improved safety net in the next farm bill. But, Robert McLendon, chairman of the NCC executive committee, also urged Congress to focus on the more immediate problem of providing continued economic assistance for producers.

“Specifically, we urge Congress to supplement existing AMTA payments with additional marketing loss payments at the highest rates possible,” he said, referring to the supplemental payments in disaster bills the last two years. Longer-term, McLendon asked that the Agriculture Committee consider new farm policy that relies on a combination of coupled and decoupled payments versus total “decoupling” of price supports in Freedom to Farm.

This combination of fixed and counter-cyclical payments, with retention of the marketing loan and the 3-step competitiveness plan, would provide U.S. cotton producers with an average return of 80 cents per pound.

McLendon did not address an American Cotton Producer-sponsored proposal to increase loan rates to 55 cents because of a lack of agreement within the council's seven segments. ACP and merchant representatives were scheduled to discuss the issue at month's end.

Keenum said the chief value of the House Agriculture Committee and other such hearings may be to help educate the budget committees of both Houses on the need for more spending authority for farm programs in the years ahead.

Last year, the committees authorized $7 billion in new spending for agriculture. Later, Sen. Cochran added $3 billion for a total of $10 billion in emergency aid for agriculture.

“This year, we have to educate our budget committees not only on the problems we're facing with low prices, but on high costs for energy and natural gas prices,” said Keenum. “USDA's chief economist has testified that if we provide no additional assistance for agriculture in 2001, net cash income is projected to decline significantly this year.”

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