I laughingly tell Keith Coble that I don’t know why his brain doesn’t explode.
Keith, who is Giles Distinguished Professor of Agricultural Economics at Mississippi State University (that title itself a significant recognition of his accomplishment in his field), is so steeped in the minutiae of farm programs — all the arcane provisions in government-speak that only politicians could love, and the seemingly endless permutations of those provisions — that one marvels his neurons don’t fry and his eyeballs flash “Tilt!”
So knowledgeable is he of the ins and outs of farm bills that, over the years, he has often been on Capitol Hill to offer insight and advice on ag policy matters.
It was no surprise, therefore, when earlier this year Senator Thad Cochran, R-Miss., asked Keith to come to Washington as chief economist for the minority staff of the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition, and Forestry, which Cochran serves as ranking minority member. Keith continues a line of MSU ag economists, including the university’s president Mark Keenum, who have participated in the process.
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“This government shutdown has been déjà vu all over again,” said Keith, back at MSU to speak at the annual meeting of the Mississippi Agricultural Economics Association. “I was in Washington for five years before I came to MSU, including the 1995 government shutdown, when I was deemed ‘non-essential’ and told to go home and do no work. During this shutdown, I got a phone call telling me I’m essential — an upgrade from the last time — but to stay home until discussions started again.”
The opportunity to be a part of the farm bill policy process has been rewarding, Keith says. “It has been a pleasure working with Sen. Cochran and his staff. He’s the consummate gentleman and, consistent with his focus over his many years in the Senate and his long involvement with farm legislation, his goal has been to get to the table and hammer out a bill that recognizes the needs of various sectors in agriculture, negotiate the differences, and get things done.”
The significant difference between this and previous bills, he says, is — no surprise — money. “In contrast to earlier farm bills, when it seemingly was no problem to come up with another $10 billion to make everyone happy, this time it has been, ‘Where can we cut $10 billion?’”
And this time around, “There have been a lot more groups, and a lot different groups at the table that weren’t players 10 years ago or 20 years ago — environmental interests, food interests, etc. They’re all players now, and they do matter; it’s a very different dynamic.
“Having taught ag policy for a number of years, this experience has confirmed something I’ve told my students for a long time: economics matters and so does politics — there’s always going to be that blend. Both feed into the policy process and both affect the outcome of policy.”