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Republican wins may delay farm bill rewrite

We may not know the name of our new president, but we can say with some degree of certainty that Republicans will control the agenda on new farm legislation for the next two years.

Republicans retained control of both the House and the Senate by the slimmest of majorities in what is becoming known as the longest election night wait in the history of the democracy.

The fact that Republicans won 220 seats in the House and 50 seats in the Senate means that Sen. Richard Lugar of Indiana and Rep. Larry Combest of Texas will continue to serve as chairmen of the Senate and House Agriculture Committees.

But the closeness of the division in both chambers - 220 to 211 seats for House Democrats and 50 to 49 seats for Senate Democrats - will make it extremely difficult for either party to dominate the legislative process the way that Republicans have since 1994.

(At press time, the breakdown in the Senate was still up in the air because of the presidential contest and the undecided senatorial race in Washington between the GOP's Slate Gorton and Democrat Maria Cantwell.)

It also makes it unclear whether Congress will be asked to revisit Freedom to Farm in 2001, a year earlier than the farm bill was scheduled to expire.

Both Combest and Rep. Charles Stenholm, D-Texas, the Ag Committee's ranking minority member, have said they would look at writing a new farm bill next year. But, Lugar has indicated his committee will conduct a review of farm policy in 2001 and produce a new farm bill in 2002.

While Democrats rate Freedom to Farm a failure, Republicans have complained that they have seen little in the way of specific proposals on how to change it. Many farmers like the law's flexibility but want some form of "counter-cyclical" support to help with low prices.

Last summer, Stenholm floated a supplemental income program or SIP plan that would provide such assistance. As with most Democratic proposals, it received little attention from the Republican leadership.

Whether that situation will change with the Republicans slim margin in each House remains to be seen. As one Republican senator said, "We will be in the majority. That is not in doubt. But the closer you get, the more cooperation is required."

Future amounts of emergency assistance for farmers also probably are not in doubt since a Republican, Sen. Thad Cochran of Mississippi, wrote most of the legislation.

(Still, Stenholm and other Congressmen from both sides of the aisle have been warning that such assistance may become more difficult to come by if farmers continue to experience disastrously low prices.)

Meanwhile, Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman announced what may be one of his last acts in office no matter which party prevails in the presidential race. The secretary said that he would leave CCC loan rates at the highest levels permitted by law.

Under the formulas in the 1996 farm bill, Glickman could have announced substantial decreases in the loan rates for corn, wheat and soybeans before he steps down when the new administration takes office in January.

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