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Senate strategy upped peanut ante

When David Rouzer arrived on Capitol Hill last fall, he saw major change in the offing for the peanut program — a change that his boss' constituents didn't want. It was also very clear to him that his boss, U.S. Sen. Jesse Helms, R-N.C., needed to up the ante to make sure Virginia-Carolina peanut farmers had at least a chance under the new law.

That in a nutshell is the strategy the U.S. Senate used earlier this year to secure more funding for the peanut program, says Rouzer, Helm's senior policy advisor and chief ag aide. The result was an increase in the loan rate, target price and quota buyout level over the House-passed bill and payment for storage, handling and other associated costs for peanuts that are put under the loan.

Rouzer, assistant to the dean and director of commodity relations at North Carolina State University College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, was granted a leave of absence without pay last fall to rejoin Helms' office.

Speaking on a panel discussing the impact of the new farm bill on peanuts, Rouzer said the objective for Helms, the only member on the Senate Agriculture Committee representing the V-C region, was to “use the basic structure of the House bill, but secure more funding because all the key peanut state members in the party of the majority in each chamber were going to have the final say in conference, and they all wanted the new program. We knew we were going to be in the minority on both counts.

“We needed leverage,” Rouzer remembers. A bill put together by Helms and Hutchinson set the target price at $550, the loan at $400 and the buyout at 50 cents per pound. The Senate-passed version, which the Congressional Budget Office discovered was $6 billion over budget several weeks after passage in the Senate, set the target price at $520, the loan at $400 and the buyout at 60 cents per pound.

Earlier in the fall of 2001, the House had passed its version with a $480 target price, a $350 loan rate and a 50-cent per pound quota buyout.

In the conference report, the target price was $495, the loan rate $355 and the quota buyout 55 cents per pound. Storage and handling costs were also included.

“The strategy paid off,” Rouzer says. The bill that was passed includes $460 million more for peanuts than did the original House bill. “It was the best we could get considering the split between grower regions and the interests of key members up for re-election.” Over the life of the farm bill, peanuts got $3.95 billion.

“Overall, from a national perspective, this program change is going to help the peanut industry, even though things don't look as good for the V-C area,” Rouzer says. “And it's not over.”

Next year's budget reconciliation process will likely bring challenges to the farm bill funding. In fact, attacks on commodity spending may come before next year,” Rouzer says. “Members of the House and Senate may offer amendments to limit payments on the Agriculture Appropriations bill in the fall.” Peanuts, he points out, were the only commodity to have separate payments limitations. “We're fairly confident we can protect the money, but every day is a new challenge.”

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