Next step after farm bill: educating the public

Friends have been asking Tom Sell what he plans to do with his time now that Congress has passed and the president has signed the Farm Security and Rural Investment Act of 2002.

Sell, deputy staff director for the House Agriculture Committee, says he is looking at another project, one as time-consuming but just as important as helping put together the compromise that became the 2002 farm bill.

“One of the first things we need to do is work on our public relations,” said Sell, a Lubbock, Texas, native who spoke to representatives of the Southern Crop Production Association and Southern Seed Association during their annual lobbying visit to Washington.

“This is the first chance I've had to speak publicly since we completed the conference report, to give a ‘post-mortem,’” he noted. “I want to review the farm bill process and talk about where we need to go in the future. That includes how best to help USDA implement the bill and to protect it, both tough questions.”

Sell and other staff members who worked on the conference have had little time to think of anything but the farm bill. From their first meeting in mid-February until the compromise agreement was announced on April 26, staff members had only two days off, Good Friday and Easter.

“When we would leave at 10 or 11 o'clock, the staffs frequently would be there until 1 or 2 a.m.,” said Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin during his closing statement in the Senate May 8.

The morning Sell spoke (May 9), he said he had been reading clippings of newspaper editorials in the days leading up to the House and Senate votes. Newspapers from as far left as the New York Times to the conservative Wall Street Journal blasted the legislation.

“We have to tell the American people how important farmers are to the economy,” said Sell. “The farm bill is not a welfare program — it's a way to help an industry that makes a significant contribution to their well-being. We haven't done a good job of educating the public on this.”

Anyone who watched the Senate farm bill debate on May 7 and 8 could see what an arduous task that may be. “It really got ugly in the Senate yesterday,” he said. “There were a lot of uninformed statements, many of them by Republicans, members of my party.”

Because of the depressed conditions in agriculture, the farm bill's authors had to come up with new money for things like counter-cyclical payments and conservation programs. “Now, people will try to take that money back because of the budget pressures,” he said. “The rhetoric in the Senate yesterday and the negative editorials show the challenges we face in keeping the bill intact.”

Sell said he expects more attempts to impose the Grassley-Dorgan payment limits on farmers. The anticipated savings of $1 billion make a tempting target for those who would like to put that money elsewhere.

“We must realize that this fight is far from over and put up defenses now to make sure we don't lose what farmers worked so hard to gain in this new farm bill.”

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