With “all the political turmoil” attendant to the 2004 Democratic and Republican conventions and national elections, “it's going to be hard to get anything out of Congress” before the year runs out, says Craig Brown, vice president of producer affairs for the National Cotton Council.
Even so, he told members of the Southern Cotton Ginners Association at their summer conference at Lafayette, La., “Our message to Congress has been consistent — that we support the current farm bill, we like this farm bill, and we're not supporting any changes in this farm bill.
“What we have to guard against are the onerous changes being proposed, either from a budget standpoint or from our not-so-good friend, the senior senator from Iowa, Charles Grassley, who continues to look for opportunities to impose on this farm bill his payment limit amendments, which could be crippling to commercial-size agriculture, particularly sunbelt agriculture.
“We have to continue to watch Sen. Grassley and do everything possible to make sure his efforts are not successful.”
Agriculture, and cotton in particular, face several critical issues, Brown says. “Our agenda is quite full now on both national and international levels.”
Going into the August recess, Brown notes, Congress still doesn't have a budget to operate under. “That's not really too surprising, in an election year, and with the political conventions going on the rhetoric will get even heavier.”
The lack of a budget is having an impact on the congressional appropriations process, he says, and that too is lagging behind a normal timetable.
“The House has passed eight of its 13 appropriations bill, including an agriculture appropriations bill, and we commend Chairman Henry Bonilla of Texas for an excellent job of getting the bill through the House floor without any really damaging amendments. Some were attempted, but he and the leadership successfully avoided any challenges, plus we got about $47 million for the boll weevil program, some money for the pink bollworm program, and funding for other critical areas, including ginning research.”
Now, Brown says, the focus is on the Senate. “It's quite unlikely the Senate will pass its version of the appropriations bill. So far, they've passed only one appropriations bill. More likely, after the elections, they'll come back and bundle their bills into an omnibus appropriations package and send it to a conference with the House. If we're lucky, before this fiscal year ends (on Sept. 30) we'll have some money to operate on.”
There are also going to be budget challenges to the farm bill, Brown says, and while Congress may not do much this year, “next year, after the elections, we expect there to be additional focus on the budget deficit.” That likely will entail some budget reductions for entitlement spending, which includes the farm bill. “We would expect there to be some challenges to the farm program, and some reductions in farm program spending. How that's done and how proportional it is to other areas of reductions are critical issues. We will certainly try to make sure agriculture doesn't take any disproportionate cuts and that cotton doesn't take any disproportionate cuts in relation to any of the other farm programs.”
Noting that a number of importers have challenged the constitutionality of the Cotton Research and Promotion Program, Brown says, “It's in the federal courts right now, and it's going to be a long, slow process.”
The U.S. cotton industry is “directly involved” in defense of the program, he says. “We think it's a very critical program that needs defending; in light of the global cotton situation, it's more important than ever, in both domestic and international arenas. The U.S. cotton industry has a very organized defense effort — we're involved formally with the courts in the role of an intervenor.”
He points out that the U.S. Supreme Court has agreed to hear a challenge to the beef industry's checkoff program and rule on its constitutionality. “We're very interested in this case, and the cotton industry will be participating in several different ways as a friend of the court to be sure proper arguments are made outlining our perspective.”
The next two to three years “are going to be critically important in terms of issues that affect agriculture,” Brown says. “The cotton industry has always been up to the task of dealing with major challenges, and I have no doubt we will continue to do that.”