While U.S. cotton farmers plan for a new growing season, the National Cotton Council will be “starting over” in 2011 as it applies to enlightening the 112th Congress to agriculture, including the need for maintaining a sound farm law with an effective safety net.
Why the huge education challenge?
There are 91 new House Members, including a new chairman of its agriculture committee, Rep. Lucas (R-Okla.). Ten of that panel’s members have cotton in their districts. The Senate has 16 new Members, including four new Cotton Belt Members, but the Senate Agriculture, Nutrition & Forestry Committee has only three Cotton Belt Members working under a new chairman, Sen. Stabenow (D-Mich.). The agriculture panels must be thoroughly oriented to U.S. cotton’s contributions to this nation – and to the cotton industry’s needs in terms of farm policy and reasonable and responsible government regulations.
The challenge will be formidable as new House rules, for example, call for all spending increases to be offset with a separate vote required to raise the debt limit. The House Republican agenda includes a focus on banning earmarks and reducing discretionary spending by 21 percent. The President’s budget proposal is due in early February, but the National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform already has suggested a $10 billion cut to agriculture programs, one that would affect direct payments, conservation programs and the highly successful Market Access Program.
What about the 2012 Farm Bill?
Fortunately, Chairman Lucas does not consider 2011 a deadline for writing that law – which will give us more education opportunities. However, preserving the budget baseline will be a challenge as 38 programs are unfunded and $8 billion will be needed to reauthorize them. Among the questions that will be addressed are: is more reform and equity needed, should direct payments be cut or used for other programs; does the ACRE program need to be changed; does the SURE program need to be maintained and altered in any way; and can the farm law be effectively simplified and will it be WTO-compliant?
How will high cotton prices factor into the Farm Bill development process?
The cotton market is experiencing unprecedented prices. Farm program critics – as they did when the 1996 farm law was being developed – will claim that we’ve reached a new plateau in prices, and programs no longer are needed. High prices will lower projected spending levels on price-dependent programs such as the counter-cyclical payment program and the marketing loan. While that’s the programs’ intent, it heightens the focus on direct payments as essentially the only projected source of spending in the current farm program. Budget hawks will seek to cut direct payments as a means of generating savings, while those seeking a different farm program will view direct payments as a source of funding that can be redirected to other programs. Our challenge will be to maintain a farm program that provides an effective safety net when low prices return and work to keep the tools and programs in place that meet our needs in all types of markets.
Mark Lange is president and chief executive officer for the National Cotton Council of America. He and other NCC leaders contribute columns on this Cotton Farming page.
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