Hunt Shipman is one of the few in Washington to have observed the farm legislative process from both sides of the fence.
Shipman, a native of Dyersburg, Tenn., served on the staffs of Sen. Thad Cochran of Mississippi and the Senate Appropriations Committee when Congress passed the 1996 farm law — Freedom to Farm.
For most of March and April, he was the Agriculture Department's point man for the House-Senate conference committee negotiations on the new farm bill.
That meant that Shipman and Charles Conner, President Bush's agricultural assistant who represented the White House, attended every negotiating session of the conference committee, including most of those behind closed door. It was different being on the other side, he said.
“We can only participate to the extent the conferees allow us to,” he said. “We don't speak unless asked.”
Shipman's toughest challenge in the conference negotiations, which ran from Feb. 21 until April 26, may have been when he was asked to explain Step 2 of the cotton program's Three-Step Competitiveness provisions to Sen. Tom Harkin of Iowa.
“It was on a Saturday or Sunday afternoon when I was there without any other USDA cotton experts to back me up,” he said. “I'm not sure Sen. Harkin knew a lot more about Step 2 when I finished, but we got through it.”
Shipman acknowledged the criticism of the role USDA played in writing the new farm law. “We feel that we did have an impact to the extent that Congress will take advice from the administration,” he said. “From the outset, we didn't want to be engaging in specifics — that's the role of Congress. Instead, we wanted to state a series of goals and objectives.
“That's why we came out with our position paper last fall. Some criticized us for not releasing the document any sooner, but we thought it was a strong statement coming only nine months after the beginning of a new administration.”