Agriculture has some friends in high places as the new Congress and administration get down to the business of running the country.
The group now in place will be responsible for formulating policy that will determine how much money agriculture gets for supplemental appropriations over the remaining two years of the current farm bill, as well as crafting provisions of the new farm bill due to become effective for 2003.
One of the critical areas for agriculture is the appropriations process, says John Maguire, vice president of Washington operations for the National Cotton Council. “We're very excited that Rep. Henry Bonilla from the San Antonio, Texas area is chairing the Appropriations Agriculture Subcommittee, where a lot of the funding we're concerned about on an annual basis is developed,” he said at the recent Farm Press-sponsored Southwest Crops Production Conference at Lubbock, Texas.
“Mr. Bonilla has proven himself to be a very adept leader, is very interested in agriculture, and we look forward to working with him.”
Ways and Means is an important committee, Maguire says, because “that's where all the trade and tax law for Congress originates. Chairman Bill Thomas of California previously served on the Agriculture Committee and is from the Bakersfield area, which has a lot of cotton and specialty crops. We look forward to working with him as his committee develops key trade and tax laws.”
Since the Republicans hold only a slim 7-vote majority in the House, “this means to pass legislation the moderate center has to be consulted and has to participate,” Maguire says.
“When we consider agriculture's friends in Congress, we tend to work with the moderate Republicans and Democrats. A very narrow control in the House is usually to agriculture's advantage because the moderates tend to have a stronger voice in farm policy.”
House leadership is little changed, he notes, with the Agriculture Committee chaired by Rep. Larry Combest and Rep. Charles Stenholm as ranking member. Both are from Texas and are keenly interested in agriculture.
With an evenly divided Senate (50 Republicans, 50 Democrats, and Vice President Dick Cheney deciding any tie votes) the body has decided that committees will have equal representation from each party. So, Maguire says, the Agriculture Committee has 10 Democrat members and 10 Republicans, with Republican Dick Lugar of Indiana as chairman, giving them majority control. Sen. Tom Harkin of Iowa is ranking member.
“In the Senate Agriculture Committee, only 5 of 20 members are from cotton states; 10 are from grain states, which means the committee is dominated by Midwest grain interests. Contrast that to the House Agriculture Committee, which has 22 of 51 members from cotton states. In the Senate, the chairman and ranking member have very differing views on how farm policy should be developed, whereas in the House Mr. Combest and Mr. Stenholm have similar views on a lot of agricultural issues.”
Agriculture's key man in the Senate, Maguire notes, is Republican Thad Cochran of Mississippi, who “has made extensive contributions to agriculture and the cotton industry. A lot of the emergency assistance that has been written into appropriations bills over the last two years has originated in his subcommittee. He's extremely responsive to all of agriculture's needs and is very interested in Sunbelt crops.”
On the Finance Committee, where trade and tax policy are hammered out, Sen. Chuck Grassley of Iowa is chairman and Sen. Max Baucus of Montana is ranking member. “Agriculture is very strongly represented on this committee, which plays a very important role in farm issues,” Maguire says.
Although agriculture “wasn't a huge issue” in last year's presidential elections, after the dust settled and Bush became president elect, “we were very excited that one of the topics at his Austin summit was agriculture.
“The conference included key agricultural leaders from around the country and, in what was seen as a very important signal to agriculture, Mr. Bush made sure the new administrator-designee of the Environmental Protection Agency, Christie Todd Whitman, was included.
“He indicated he knew it was important not only to have farmers there talking to his Agriculture Secretary designee, Ann Veneman, but that it was also important that the Secretary of Agriculture and the head of the EPA talk and work more closely together.”
Secretary Veneman, Maguire says, “is experienced in Washington, having served as deputy secretary under Secretary Madigan in the previous Bush administration. She also served as commissioner of agriculture for the state of California.
“Those of us who've worked with her feel she is going to do an outstanding job. She's a good listener and she'll be out working with farmers. She'll be a good spokesperson for the farm community.”