While much of the national attention has been focused on the presidential vote count in Florida, officials in Washington are quietly going about the business of keeping the federal government operating.

One item of business that hasn't attracted much attention is the drafting of new regulations to implement the emergency assistance program in the fiscal 2001 agricultural appropriations bill.

The legislation written by Sen. Thad Cochran, R-Miss., says farmers could receive assistance in these areas - losses of quantity, quality and a new category, "severe economic loss." As with most federal programs, much will depend on how USDA implements the law.

Department officials have not said much publicly, but some clues have emerged in meetings with farm groups such as the National Cotton Council and Texas' Plains Cotton Growers Inc.

On the quantity provisions, NCC and Plains Cotton officials expect USDA to establish an eligibility threshold of 65 percent; i.e., farmers made less than 65 percent of their crop insurance Actual Production History yield or county average yield.

The payment rate would be 65 percent of the crop insurance price of 59 cents per pound or 38 cents. If USDA follows previous years' rules, farmers who had zero production in 2000 would calculate their disaster benefits and reduce them by a factor of 18 percent.

Growers could have the choice of two options on the quality loss provisions. The legislation says producers whose average quality on a farm is 20 percent below the assigned average quality for their county would be eligible for a quality adjustment.

Under the first option, if the 20 percent quality loss threshold is exceeded, the payment rate could be the difference between the actual quality and the county average quality multiplied by 65 percent. That amount would be paid on the actual production from 65 percent of the harvested acres.

Option two would offer quality assistance as a component of yield and would supplement quantity benefits as under the 1999 disaster assistance program.

It's possible the severe economic loss component could apply to farmers who harvested a reduced crop in 2000, but do not qualify for assistance under the quantity or quality loss provisions of the ag appropriations bill.

NCC staff members and representatives of other commodity organizations have floated several ideas for delivery of assistance under this section, but USDA has not provided a clear message indicating if a program will, in fact, be offered or at what level it would be available.

Exactly when the regulations will be issued is a matter of serious conjecture for farm organizations and county Farm Service Agency county directors who are receiving questions from growers daily.

Congressional leaders had hoped the rules would be available before the end of the year and in time for growers to take the numbers to their lenders. But that is becoming less likely as we approach the Christmas holidays.

But they will come. In only a few countries would the government continue to write regulations when so much uncertainty surrounds the national leadership. Thank goodness the United States of America is one of them.