Texas trips pay off for Council leaders

Twenty years from now, someone checking through the National Cotton Council's records might ask: “Why did they make so many trips to Texas in the spring of 2001?”

Anyone familiar with the geography of the House Agriculture Committee knows why Council representatives traveled to Lubbock so frequently last spring — that's where the power is, at least on the House Ag Committee.

Committee Chairman Larry Combest, who represents Texas' 19th District, resides in Lubbock. Rep. Charles Stenholm, the ranking minority member on the Ag Committee, represents the 17th District and lives in Abilene, which, in Texas, practically makes them neighbors.

Between them, farmers in the two districts grow nearly 3 million acres of cotton, probably the largest concentration of the crop anywhere.

It doesn't take a close reading of the “Farm Security Act of 2001,” or H.R. 2646, the bill reported out by the House Agriculture Committee July 27, to see the Cotton Council's imprint.

The bill mirrors testimony by Bob McLendon, former Council president, before the House Ag Committee last February. The NCC was the first farm organization invited to testify before the committee in its final round of farm bill hearings.

McLendon said the Council supported “crop-specific payments, triggered when the price of a covered commodity falls below a specific threshold. This would be similar to the 1990 farm law target price system.” H.R. 2646 contains a counter-cyclical payment that uses target price levels similar to the 1990 farm bill.

The 2001 bill also continues AMTA payments, renews the marketing loan and allows producers to increase their acreage base above 1985 levels — all provisions sought by McLendon and the NCC. The bill does not provide the funding levels sought by the Council and other farm organizations, but it comes close.

While applauded by many, the legislation faces substantial hurdles. First, it must pass the House. Then, it must be reconciled with legislation produced in the Senate where leaders have already had some unkind words for H.R. 2646.

In an unusual step, both the Senate Ag Committee chairman, Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, and the ranking minority member, Sen. Richard Lugar, R-Ind., said they will replace the commodity group-oriented provisions of the House Ag Committee bill with something far different.

“I'm questioning whether we should continue to support every bushel, bale and pound that's being produced in this country,” said Harkin. “We've got an overabundance of production.”

“It's mostly a division of the spoils for the major commodity group producers,” Lugar said in a reference to the House Ag Committee bill. “Many of the safety nets we already have for farmers actually stimulate overproduction and depress prices.”

The latter is expected to draw support from USDA, which will weigh in with its farm policy ideas when Congress returns from recess. USDA officials are saying privately that the House committee's proposals are “bad for farmers. They only inflate farmland prices and land rent, making us uncompetitive in the world markets.”

Harkin said he hopes to have a bill ready for Senate consideration by the end of September, which could set up one of the most contentious farm bill debates in a long time this fall.

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