It's not often that a committee chairman ends up on the losing side of a vote. But that's not the only strange thing that happened when the House Agriculture Committee rejected a $6.5 billion economic assistance package for farmers.

For openers, the committee chairman, Rep. Larry Combest, a Texas Republican, ignored a White House warning that any bill exceeding $5.5 billion in economic assistance would draw a presidential veto. Shortly before the June 20 vote, Budget Director Mitch Daniels wrote Combest advising him that he would not recommend that the president sign legislation if it went over the $5.5 billion earmarked for emergency assistance in the congressional budget resolution.

But Combest proposed the $6.5 billion package anyway, warning members that a $5.5 billion package would be insufficient to meet producers' worsening commodity prices. The $5.5 billion would provide 85 percent of the 2000 AMTA payments farmers received.

Combest, whose district centers around Lubbock, planned to use $1 billion from the funding set aside for agricultural spending in fiscal 2002.

That set up the second strange event — opposition by ranking minority member, Rep. Charles Stenholm, a Democrat whose district adjoins Combest's, to the package's “deficit” spending. Stenholm, who usually shoots for all the agricultural dollars he can get, argued the additional $1 billion in funding should be preserved for the new farm bill that the Ag Committee will write this summer.

As he did in April, when the Republican-controlled Congress passed the budget resolution, Stenholm claimed the spending plan did not provide enough funding for economic assistance either in fiscal 2001 or in future years.

Stenholm and committee vice chairman Rep. John Boehner, an Ohio Republican, introduced a substitute amendment to the chairman's mark. The Stenholm-Boehner amendment that limited the spending to $5.5 billion passed 24 votes to 23, a close vote for the normally agreeable Agriculture Committee. Four committee members were listed as not voting: Reps. Bob Schaffer of Colorado, Sanford Bishop of Georgia, Bennie Thompson of Mississippi and Bob Etheridge of North Carolina.

The votes had barely been cast when rumblings began to be heard from Thompson's Delta district. It wasn't clear whether Thompson was not present or simply didn't vote on the amendment. “That vote cost the Delta several million dollars,” said one observer. “A lot of farmers are upset.”

Four Democrats — Reps. Marion Berry and Mike Ross of Arkansas, Leonard Boswell of Iowa and Ronnie Shows of Mississippi — voted against the Stenholm-Boehner amendment along with 19 Republicans.

Stenholm, who promised to seek additional funding for economic assistance, said the fact Congress is considering a fourth straight year of such legislation “ought to tell us that existing farm policy is not working very well.”

After the vote, the National Cotton Council and other commodity groups said they would seek improvements in the package, specifically to increase the 2001 AMTA payment to the 1999 rate.

American Farm Bureau Federation officials disputed claims in Daniels' letter to Combest that commodity prices were improving, saying the only bright spot is the livestock sector. AFBF President Bob Stallman argued the $5.5 billion assistance package should have been at least $7 billion.


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