Mississippi farmers may have more at stake in the November elections than they think. If Republicans should regain control of the U.S. Senate in November, a strong possibility according to the experts, Mississippi Sen. Thad Cochran could become chairman of the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry.
“As chairman of the Agriculture Committee, Sen. Cochran would set the agenda,” says Hunter Moorhead, Cochran's legislative aide. “If Republicans don't win control of the Senate, he would become the ranking Republican member.
“He would also retain his seat on the Senate Appropriations Committee so that he would be able to write the authorizing language (as chairman of the Agriculture Committee) and help decide which programs to fund,” Moorhead said in comments at the Mississippi Farm Bureau's Summer Commodity Conference.
A long-time member of the Agriculture Committee, Cochran served as chairman of the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Agriculture until Republicans lost control of the Senate when Sen. Jim Jeffords of Vermont became an independent last summer.
There was a possibility that Cochran could have become either chairman or ranking minority member of the Appropriations Committee until three weeks ago, said Moorhead.
“Back when term limits was a big issue, the Senate passed a rule that a senator could only serve as a committee chairman for six years,” he said.
“Now that six years have rolled around, those chairman are saying they don't want to step down.
“They held a closed-door meeting last week to discuss the issue,” said Moorhead (who spoke on July 8). “As a result, Sen. Cochran is in line to become chairman or ranking minority member of the Agriculture Committee, depending on how the November elections turn out.”
For now, Sen. Cochran is expected to be in the thick of the battle when the Senate Appropriations Committee takes up the fiscal 2003 agricultural appropriations bill. Proponents of the Grassley-Dorgan payment limit amendment have indicated they will attempt to attach the legislation to the appropriations bill.
“The ag appropriations bill will come up in the next two weeks, and we will work together as a committee to fend off amendments that would weaken the farm bill,” said Moorhead.
Besides revisiting the payment limit issue, the Appropriations Committee is also expected to face attempts to divert funding from the new farm bill to such projects as recovery efforts in the aftermath of the massive fires in the Western states.
Moorhead said staff members for Southern senators have been trying to educate their counterparts in the Midwest about the damage the Grassley-Dorgan amendment would do in the South.
“Our Midwestern friends think that cotton and rice producers get too much money in the new farm bill,” he said. “We've been trying to tell them about the significantly higher costs of production for cotton and rice compared to corn and soybeans. They believe that if you take money from cotton and rice, it will mean more for their growers.”
Moorhead and other staffers have also been talking about equitable treatment for farmers.
“This farm bill makes payments no matter what the size of the farm,” he said. “We hear a lot about saving the family farm. We want to save the family farm, as well. However, the Grassley-Dorgan payment limitation amendment would destroy a large percentage of successful family farms.”
Another issue facing the Appropriations Committee is disaster assistance. Senators from the Western states have been pushing for between $2.5 billion and $4 billion in crop loss disaster payments.
“This would not be economic emergency payments such as the ‘double-AMTA’ payments of the last four years, but disaster payments,” he said.
Moorhead also discussed the differences in the 1996 and 2002 farm bills, noting that the marketing loan rates were raised for most crops. USDA has also made sweeping adjustments in the posted county prices or PCPs used for calculating loan deficiency payments or marketing loan gains.
“We think they did a great job in adjusting the PCPs, as a whole,” he said. “But if you have a problem in your area, call us. It is important that farmers provide input during this process of implementing the new farm bill.”