"It's anybody's guess."
That's how Sen. Thad Cochran, R-Miss., characterizes the Senate's efforts to birth a new farm bill, while preoccupied with terrorism-related events and a stubbornness about considering any legislation until a large slate of new federal judges is confirmed.
"I don't think anyone can make any predictions with any certainty as to how this is going to come out," he told members of the Southern Crop Production Association at their annual meeting in New Orleans.
"I think we can conclude that this administration is going to try and define, in a more structured and predictable way than we've seen in the past, the allocations that can be expected for farm programs over the next five years."
Cochran, who is the ranking member of the Appropriations Committee's Subcommittee on Agriculture, said there have been "some strong signals" from the Bush Administration as to what a new farm bill should and shouldn't do, but given the tenor of the Senate, it's not even certain that body will complete one this year."
In which case, the current Freedom to Farm legislation would remain operable until new law is passed next year or until it finally expires in September, 2002.
The slowness of the Senate Judiciary Committee to move on confirmation of federal judges — only 10 of a hundred or so have made it through the approval process — "has begun to be a problem," Cochran noted.
"This has driven some Republicans to object to proceeding with any other legislation until these confirmations have been presented to the Senate for votes. The way to do that is to object to the consideration of any new bills, and to have a debate on it. Some call these debates filibusters."
Unless the Senate can muster the 60 votes necessary to shut off debate, things bog down. "If it's anything substantive, we've been unable to consider it because Republican senators have been voting against proceeding until the Senate turns its attention to confirming some judges.
"So, there is this power struggle going on in the Senate that complicates not only procedures and the agenda of the Senate, but it also, in my view, is going to have an impact on other legislation such as the farm bill.
"Even if the (Senate Agriculture Committee) reported out a farm bill — particularly one that might be contrary to the views of the president and his director of the Office of Management and Budget — that bill would be likely to be considered on its merits by the Senate."
Looking at "the realities of politics," Cochran said, "and the differences of opinion that are strongly held, that are based on individual views of the role of government and the responsibilities to the taxpayers across a wide range of interests, there is no consensus on what the new farm bill should be,
"So, we have to stay tuned in to what's going on and continue to express our views as to what shape the new legislation ought to be."
Trying to define new policies and programs that will help support agricultural producers against the backdrop of the terrorist episodes of Sept. 11, the anthrax scares, and other concerns presents a challenge, Cochran said.
He noted a quote by Office of Management and Budget Director Mitch Daniel, who was asked about the president's priorities for a new farm bill and programs for American agriculture. "There are only two things more important to this administration," Daniel responded. "The first is conquering international terrorism and the second is protecting Americans here at home."
Daniel, Cochran said, "has become a very significant administration player in his role as director of OMB," and "I think his statement captures the attitude…of the Bush Administration with respect to agricultural legislation, the new farm bill, and the administration of our current farm programs. He (Daniel) has a great deal of influence with President Bush and others in the administration on budget matters."
The recent passage of the House farm bill, almost a year before the old one expires, shows "there's a lot of pressure for certain needs, of strong signals of commitment to continuing support programs for production agriculture at the federal level," Cochran said.
"But there's a great deal of uncertainty that has been created" by the events after Sept. 11, by changing relationships in Congress as a result of Democrats regaining control of the Senate, and by members of the president's own party "seemingly at odds" with his definition of what farm policy should be for the next fiscal year.
"The good news," Cochran said, "is that at the beginning of the next crop year, the existing farm legislation will be controlling law, and we will follow that until a new farm bill is enacted or the old one expires."