Congress taking look at farm laws

At a press conference during the annual Farm Bureau meeting in Orlando, Fla., this question was asked of FB president Bob Stallman: "Senator Thad Cochran's chief of staff recently told a group of soybean growers in Mississippi that the Senate has come back to Washington in no mood to entertain a new farm bill. Instead, they've been working quietly with farm groups and others to build support for a plan that will hopefully be revealed to farmers prior to spring planting. He said a double Agriculture Market Transition Act (AMTA) payment for this year and next is under serious discussion. Any thoughts on that?"

"I'm not privy to those discussions, but since I suspect we won't have a new farm bill, there's every expectation some additional assistance will be provided again," Stallman replied.

That expectation is probably an accurate one, says Mark Keenum, who is Cochran's right-hand man on agricultural issues.

"What I've said, and continue to say, is that members of the House Agriculture Committee are very interested in pursuing the possibility of writing a new farm bill for the commodity programs. I don't see that kind of activity going on in the Senate Agriculture Committee. In my discussions with members of the Senate, there doesn't seem to be such a desire for that approach," says Keenum.

When a farm bill is written, it's typically comprehensive and includes facets other than the farm programs. There's usually a trade title, a research title, a conservation title, and a nutrition title in addition to cotton, soybeans, wheat, livestock and on and on, says Keenum.

"If you do a bill strictly for commodities, it leads to questions about whether such a thing could garner enough votes without addressing nutrition programs, conservation and the like. Based on the experiences of working on the last two farm bills with Sen. Cochran, that's what jumps out at me," says Keenum.

There is also much talk amongst commodity organizations and Congress about a double AMTA payment, says Keenum.

"What's to be done if there's no farm bill this year? Farmers need assurances for this crop year. That's where the talk of the double-AMTA approach is coming from."

There has been some discussion about going ahead and announcing such payments. However, applying the title "double-AMTA" is really not the best way to describe them, says Keenum. They are really economic assistance payments that were based on an AMTA payment.

"The double payment that farmers received last year for their 2000 crop wasn't actually a double 2000 payment. They actually got a 2000 payment and the extra emergency assistance payment was based on the payment rate of the previous year, 1999. So, they got a 2000 payment and a 1999 payment. The previous year, they did in fact get two identical payments."

What happens this year is still up in the air, says Keenum. Announcing the double payments early would, however, present farmers with some needed certainty going into the year. Lenders and creditors would also know what was going on early instead of waiting until the end of the year to find out, says Keenum.

When does Keenum think this might be resolved?"I don't know. If (double payment) is the approach Congress decides to take, it would provide a better sense of security. But all this is contingent on budget resolutions being adopted that would fund such payments. If we don't have it in the budget and there's still a strong desire of Congress to do it, it would have to be passed as emergency moneys."

Will the tax cuts President-elect Bush has proposed make it harder to get such payments passed?

"I don't know. Agriculture is very important to the nation and the incoming administration will be sensitive to that. When it gets up and going, we'll communicate the situation to them.

"There's a lot that has to get done. Whether it gets done by planting time or not, we don't know. But there is a lot of time being spent on discussion of ideas."

Even if Congress took on a comprehensive new farm bill in 2001, it's unlikely to make a quick difference. It normally takes the bulk of a whole year to get a farm bill done, says Keenum.

"In fact, we spent all of 1995 writing and passing a new farm bill that was then vetoed by President Clinton. As a result, one wasn't passed until April 1996. That's a lot of work and time.

"A new farm bill is coming. The point is this: what to do this year before it arrives? Do we need to wait and see how things develop this crop year or go ahead and pull the trigger?"

How about preliminary hearings on the next farm bill?

"There should be a lot of discussion on farm policy this year. I'll be interested in what the House does. The work they do will ultimately lay the foundation for what comes next."

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