The ranking minority member of the House Agriculture Committee says he would attempt to write a new farm bill in 2001 rather than in 2002 if the November elections should happen to make him chairman of the committee.
For many members of Congress, such a statement would be political posturing. But, for Rep. Charles Stenholm, a Democrat whose district includes the High Plains of Texas, it was just a statement of fact.
Speaking to the Commodity Club, a group of agricultural lobbyists, Stenholm said he believes the committee's current chairman, Republican Larry Combest, who represents a neighboring district in Texas, would also like to rewrite the farm bill in 2001.
"But my colleague from Texas would have trouble getting the House Republican leadership to go along with him," he said. "I feel I will have more support from my leadership."
Generally one of the least partisan members of Congress - he helped found the "Blue Dog" Democrats, a group of moderates who take a pragmatic stand on most issues - Stenholm asked the audience to consider the contrasts between Democratic Minority Leader Richard Gephardt and House Majority Whip Tom DeLay.
In recent months, DeLay has thwarted farm-state congressmen on a number of issues, most recently the efforts to lift economic sanctions against Cuba. Gephardt, meanwhile, has been a frequent critic of Freedom to Farm and has called for increased disaster aid for farmers.
Stenholm said the House Agriculture Committee hearings during the spring and summer have "primed the pump" for rewriting the current farm bill, which is not scheduled to expire until 2002.
He acknowledged that many farmers like the increased flexibility that is the underlying concept of the 1996 Federal Agricultural Improvement and Reform Act. But, he also noted that the legislation has cost $44 billion more than expected with no end to the spending in sight.
"It's not a sustainable national policy," he said. "Therefore, I think we really need to roll up our sleeves and make the House Agriculture Committee a working committee early in the next Congress, with a whole design and purpose of having the new farm bill before the end of 2001."
Last summer, Stenholm proposed revamping the FAIR Act with a supplemental income program or SIP, which would provide income support to farmers in times of low prices. But, Republicans, who have become increasingly defensive about Freedom to Farm, balked at the plan.
Stenholm said he wasn't sure what form the debate would take next year, but that he still supports a "counter-cyclical" program; that is, one that would increase aid to farmers when prices are low and decrease it when markets improve.
He said a new farm bill must be more trade-oriented. "We've lost the battle in Europe," he said, responding to a question about biotechnology. And, the United States isn't faring much better on other trade issues.
"The Europeans are not going to change their farm policy no matter how many times we tell them to," he said. "I don't think we're ever going to get anywhere with our European friends until we come to some agreement on what's permissible on trade."