It's not often that those writing legislation also get to help implement it. But that is the case with the 2000 disaster assistance program.

Earlier this month, Hunt Shipman, agricultural aide to Mississippi Sen. Thad Cochran, was detailed to USDA to help finish writing the regulations for the yield loss portion of the program.

Shipman was given the position of acting Undersecretary of Agriculture for International Affairs and Commodity Programs, generally considered the No. 3 post in the department following the secretary and deputy secretary.

Secretary Ann Veneman, sworn in on the day of President George W. Bush's inauguration, has been virtually working alone in the department because the administration has not submitted nominations for any of USDA's appointed positions from the deputy secretary on down.

Shipman, a native of Dyersburg, Tenn., who joined Cochran's staff after former agricultural aide Mark Keenum was elevated to chief of staff, worked on the 1996 farm bill and helped write the last three disaster assistance bills.

Before Shipman's temporary transfer, USDA was struggling with the disaster program regulations. Farmers began signup for disaster payments on Jan. 18, but USDA could not begin handing out the assistance until the department published the regulations for public comment.

Without an undersecretary in the position that oversees the Farm Service Agency and the Commodity Credit Corp. to sign them, that couldn't happen. With the publication on March 16, Shipman said some farmers would begin receiving payments within a matter of days.

USDA's political appointments have been snagged in a debate over which region gets the deputy secretary post. Since Secretary Veneman is from California, Midwest senators have argued the deputy should come from their region; Southern senators, from the South.

The administration held up the next tier of appointments — undersecretaries — because of the belief that the deputy secretary should have input on the selections for those positions.

Another stumbling block: the administration's insistence that farmers considered for those positions must “cash rent” their land to avoid conflicts of interest — an attempt to avoid perceptions of such in the previous administration.

The administration has, on the other hand, completed a number of state-level appointments to make sure programs can be carried out once they are approved.

It's not that unusual for congressional staffers to move into positions of authority at USDA following the change of administrations. In fact, a number of analysts have said that Mark Keenum would make a strong candidate for deputy secretary or undersecretary for international affairs and commodity programs.

Sen. Cochran has a history of finding and hiring talented staff members. Wayne Boutwell, Cochran's first agricultural assistant, originated the marketing loan concept before he left to become president of the National Council of Farm Cooperatives. David Graves worked on two farm bills before becoming president of the Rice Millers Association.

If Keenum or Shipman leave Cochran's office for USDA, the senator will probably find a good replacement. With the administration talking about smaller spending increases for agriculture than were planned for 2002, agriculture needs all the friends it can get in the USDA building.


e-mail: forrest_laws@intertec.com