John Maguire, National Cotton Council vice president for Washington operations, says Congress has a sharp learning curve to master in a short time as it comes to grips with an agricultural policy that, despite heavy spending for the past three years, has left many farmers struggling to stay in business.

The issues will be complex, including trade, equitable disaster relief, crop insurance, marketing loan programs, and conservation issues, among others.

Adding to the complexity will be House and Senate agriculture committee members who are relatively new to their posts.

“The House Ag committee is large,” Maguire said during the Plains Cotton Growers Association annual meeting recently in Lubbock.

“The committee includes 27 Republicans, 10 from cotton areas, but only one who was in Congress in 1990 and only eight who were around in 1996.

“Democrats have 24 members on the committee, 13 from cotton areas, but only two who were in Congress in 1990 and 10 in 1996.

“Congressman Charlie Stenholm (D-Tex., and ranking member of the committee) has a significant education job ahead of him,” Maguire said. “And we need to help him.”

A similar situation exists in the Senate where Democrat and Republican representation is split 50/50. Richard Lugar, D-Ind., is chairman, and Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, is ranking member. “Three Republicans and two Democrats come from the Cotton Belt,” Maguire said.

Three Republicans represent the Midwest, and three the Far West. Six of the Democrats represent Midwestern states.

Maguire said the House would likely find common ground in ag policy. “It's a narrowly divided committee, and that usually favors agriculture. We depend on moderate Democrats and moderate Republicans to cooperate to find acceptable solutions.”

Cooperation is less certain in the Senate where Maguire says members may “find it difficult to get consensus. Lugar and Harkin also have differing views on what makes effective farm policy.”

Compromise may prove crucial for farm interests.

“Farm income likely will decline from $56.9 million to less than $51 million this year,” Maguire said. “We've avoided a national farm crisis because of government payments. Without government assistance farm income would be severely reduced.”

He said government spending for agriculture the past three years has been significant. “But the government can't sustain that level of spending.”

Maguire said the challenge continues, however, as farmers face sluggish export demand, low commodity prices, and a severe cost/price squeeze, all of which contribute to low farm income.

Maguire said the message from the cotton industry to Congress includes consideration of fixed de-coupled payments; counter-cyclical payments; cropping flexibility; elimination of payment limits; and a cottonseed assistance program.

“Other commodity organizations follow similar approaches,” he said.

Maguire said a cotton industry wish list would include: funds for boll weevil eradication, gin labs, adequate funding to staff the Farm Service Agency, conservation programs, research, and export promotion.

He said tax goals include phase-out of the estate tax and acceleration of health insurance deductibility.

“We want to see increased funding for marketing efforts in Central and South America,” he said

Biotech, cotton flammability studies, immigration and department of transportation issues also need attention.

The House has been holding hearings across the country for more than a year and will complete an initial study early this month, Maguire said. “They will develop a consensus policy, hold further hearings and have a recommendation ready for the House Budget Committee by July 11.”

The Senate is not as far along and likely will not take any action until this fall.

Maguire said immediate farm concerns include emergency assistance for 2001. “What will be available in a package for 2001 is less clear than it was in 2000,” he said. “We're still not certain of the details but we hope Congress finds a way to enact emergency assistance legislation ahead of commodity programs.

“We need an economic assistance package that's at least equal to what we had in 2000,” Maguire said.