Delays in getting a new farm bill through Congress have been “very frustrating,” says Mississippi Republican Congressman Alan Nunnelee, “and while I have every confidence that between now and fall we’ll get the magic 218 votes required to pass a bill, we’ve got a tough job in front of us.”
A bone of contention between Republicans and Democrats, he said at the annual meeting of the Northeast Mississippi Producer Advisory Council, is the cost of federally-supported nutrition programs.
“These programs make up over three-fourths of the total farm bill,” he says. “Much of what the Department of Agriculture does isn’t agriculture — it’s welfare.”
About half the people receiving food stamps, Nunnelee said, have been doing so for seven years, and the number of food stamp recipients has “almost doubled” in the last four years. “If we’re going to effectively get control of spending in our country, we’re going to have to deal with issues like this.”
He says a number of his Republican colleagues have said “they’re not going to vote for any farm bill — period,” and that the challenge is to get enough support on both sides of the aisle to get legislation approved.
Nunnelee, who serves on the Appropriations Committee, was recently named to the Budget Committee, which he says allows him to “work alongside Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wisc., in trying to craft a budget under very difficult circumstances.
“Forty-two cents of every dollar the government is spending is borrowed money. For perhaps the first time in American history, we have a generation concerned that they’re not going to be able to leave a better way of life for succeeding generations.
“We’ve been successful, I think, in getting a change in the overall debate — no longer is the discussion about how much more is Washington going to spend; now the discussion is, where can we cut spending and where can we effectively do it?”
Without changes to rein in spending, Nunnelee says, “We’re headed to be a nation like some of those in Europe. Just last week, at a meeting I attended, the head of the Congressional Budget Committee said if we don’t make these changes, we may be put in a position that we can no longer defend ourselves as a nation. And that’s not acceptable.”
A member of the House Agriculture Committee, Nunnelee was recently named vice chairman of the Energy and Water Subcommittee, which is important to agriculture, he says, because of its jurisdiction over the TVA, the Corps of Engineers, and the Appalachian Regional Commission.
“I think our challenge for agriculture is to come up with programs that don’t hinder you in what you need to do. I see my role in Congress as one of working to make sure that the policies that come out of Washington support and enhance what you do, and that they don’t get in your way.
"I’m very concerned about the overreaching of government regulations, and specifically regulations that relate to the EPA and their impact on agriculture in Mississippi.”
As examples, he says, “The EPA recently came out with a regulation that said spilled milk, because of its fat content, is a hazardous waste, and must be dealt with accordingly. They also came out with regulations on acceptable levels of dust on farms — anybody who’s ever cut soybeans in the fall knows that dust goes with the territory. We passed legislation overwhelmingly in the House to deal with the milk and dust issues and when it got to the Senate, they sat on it and did nothing.”
Responding to a question about the EPA regulatory burden on the economy, Nunnelee said, “None of us want to go back to the days when rivers caught fire from pollution. But in the decades since then, our knowledge has improved and our commitment to the environment has improved.
“Those who work the land want to pass it, and their way of life, to their children and grandchildren, and they aren’t going to abuse it. I think the EPA’s regulatory authority has far exceeded what it was originally intended to do. It has gone way too far.
“We’ve passed numerous bills in the House to draw boundary lines around the EPA as to what they can do and how far they can go. We pass them out of the House with bipartisan support and they go to the Senate and die a quick death.”
Nunnelee says he is also concerned about estate tax rules. “I favor getting rid of this permanently so you can pass on the investment you’ve got in land an equipment to successive generations, without them having to sell of part or all of it to pay taxes.”
Asked about the potential for sequestration to occur March 1, triggering automatic government spending cuts, he said “I fully expect to see sequestration implemented.
“We can’t continue spending at this rate. We’ve got to find a way to cut spending; if we don’t, we’re going to see our country collapse under its own weight. I honestly believe sequestration is unavoidable.”
Agriculture is still the No. 1 driver of Mississippi’s economy, Nunnelee says, and “it’s vital that your elected officials listen to you about your concerns and issues.”