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Cochran Brings Southern Perspective to Senate Agriculture Committee

As the panel’s new ranking member, the Mississippian might alter the farm bill’s direction, champion Southern growers

Mississippi’s Thad Cochran, the new ranking Republican on the Senate Agriculture Committee, could be the wild card among the congressional players involved in writing a farm bill that could have a chance of being signed into law this year.

He took the top GOP seat at the start of the 113th Congress after asserting his seniority on the panel to move Pat Roberts of Kansas out of the spot. The change means not only new leadership but also a regional shift in power that is likely to alter the Senate farm bill’s direction.

Cochran is expected to champion Southern growers who opposed the 2012 Senate farm bill written by Roberts and Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich. Despite opposition from Cochran and other Southern Republican committee members, the two leaders got the bill through the panel and the Senate floor with bipartisan support.

On nutrition issues, Cochran may surprise those who want to see significant cuts to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, a domestic food aid program for low-income people that constitutes more than half of all Agriculture Department and farm bill spending. The lawmaker says federal food programs such as SNAP and the national school lunch program have benefited his state, which ranks among the poorest in the nation.

“I come from a state where, probably per capita, we have higher participation rates in the food stamp program, in the school lunch program and government subsidized meals for this, that and the other,” he told the North American Agricultural Journalists earlier this month.

“It’s part of the responsibility of my representation of our state that I make sure that those interests are reflected in legislation passed by Congress. I’ve never had to apologize for supporting the food stamp program in Mississippi.”

The Senate committee has not said when it will mark up a farm bill, but the House Agriculture Committee has set May 15 for its markup.

The House committee has not released a draft bill, so it remains to be seen how the panel will address updated farm bill savings estimates by the Congressional Budget Office. In June 2012, the CBO scored the House farm bill with a savings of $35 billion over 10 years. In a March update, the savings fell to $26.6 billion. The CBO also reduced the 10-year savings for the Senate bill from $23 billion to $13.1 billion.

Although a farm bill is wide-ranging and sets policy for conservation, rural development, agricultural research and other areas, the commodity, or farm support, title is usually where lawmakers clash. The disputes often fall along regional lines as they did last year when Senate Agriculture produced a bill that was geared more to Midwestern growers, while Southern growers and others outside the Midwest grain and soybean belt preferred the House panel’s legislation.

A November report by the Agriculture Department on the effect of eliminating direct payments noted that in 2008, such aid represented significant income for rice growers in the South, averaging about $96.25 per acre, and for peanut producers at $45.85 per acre. Payments averaged $24.39 per acre for corn, $15.21 for wheat and $11.54 for soybeans.

Carl Zulauf, an agricultural economist at Ohio State University, said the differences among crops drive the division between those who support direct payments and those who prefer a system based more on crop insurance.

“One thing that is very clear is that rice does not receive the amount of payments under a risk management [insurance] orientation as it does under more traditional income transfer programs,” Zulauf said.

The House committee approved its farm bill but the legislation never reached the floor. Congress wound up passing a partial extension (PL 112-240) of the 2008 farm bill (PL 110-246) and leaving the Agriculture committees to try again in 2013 to produce a multiyear farm bill.

So far, Cochran, a veteran of the Senate and a courtly practitioner of behind-the-scenes maneuvering, is keeping his farm bill plans to himself. He says he will seek consensus on a committee bill and does not plan to block or delay the legislation.

He told the journalists group that target prices — preset price levels that trigger payments to farmers — have been “a key ingredient of farm legislation for the last several years,” adding, “I’m open to considering at what level we set those rates.”

Stabenow has acknowledged that she will have to factor in Southern concerns this time around.

“We have a little different dynamic in our committee with Sen. Cochran now assuming the position of ranking member,” she told the group. “I want to be able to find the middle ground that will address the concerns of our colleagues in the South but also retain the reforms in the bill.”

SNAP is another potentially contentious area. The 2012 Senate bill proposed $4.5 billion by tightening states’ use of utility allowances to qualify people for the nutrition program. The CBO’s March update eliminated the savings after concluding that the proposal would result in no significant changes in spending.

Stabenow said the committee will revisit SNAP in this year’s farm bill, but added, “There is not bipartisan support, there is not a majority in the Senate that would vote to change eligibility standards or the structure of benefits.”

And even though Cochran generally looks favorably on the food aid program, he did not rule out trying to make some cuts to the program.

“I’ll just have to look at the specifics when we get into the process,” Cochran said.

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