Prospects for getting an agriculture disaster program through Congress now are “fairly low,” a House Agriculture Committee staff member says.

“There was a major push for this prior to the mid-term elections, and there are still people pushing for it — but there's no appetite for this in Washington,” Tom Sell, the committee's deputy staff director told members of the Southern Crop Production Association at their annual meeting at Charleston, S.C.

“If more assistance is given to agriculture, there will have to be offsetting reductions in other programs, and that's very difficult to do. The budget environment nowadays is very difficult, so agriculture in the new Congress will be in a mode of trying to protect what we got in the 2002 farm bill.

“Also, a lot of appropriations and other measures still have to be settled, and with the budgetary climate facing Congress, budget deficits, and the rather generous 2002 farm bill, a disaster program would be a very hard sell.”

Hunt Shipman, USDA deputy under secretary for farm and foreign agricultural services, speaking on the same program, agreed. “Additionally, I think the recent increases we've seen in prices for several commodities, will temper any push for disaster payments.”

Both said the new Congress is likely to do some “tweaking” of the farm bill's provisions.

“Lawmakers have always had a propensity to do this,” Sell said, “and they likely will do some fine-tuning of this bill, particularly the most controversial provisions dealing with payment limitations. A number of members, particularly from the Midwest, are trying to make this their Number One tweaking goal.

“There's a lot of emotion surrounding this, and a lot of rhetoric, most of which isn't based on fact. It's great that Sen. Thad Cochran (R-Miss.) is now chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee, rather than Sens. Harkin or Lugar, who are not so favorable to this issue. Sen. Cochran will try his best to keep others from wresting money away from the farm bill to give to other programs.”

While some changes are to be expected to the landmark legislation, Shipman said, “Those who wrote this farm bill did an absolutely masterful job, and there's not a lot of need for technical corrections.”

Sell said, “We're very excited by the recent elections, the increase in the Republican majority in the House, and the Republicans regaining control of the Senate. House Agriculture Committee Chairman Larry Combest (R-Texas) said Sen. Cochran's return as chairman of the Senate ag committee represents ‘a great day for agriculture.’ Between them, they've achieved some great victories for U.S. agriculture. American farmers couldn't have a better team working for them.

The upcoming two years of Republican control of the House will push the total to a decade, Sell noted.

But “one unfortunate aspect” is that when Republicans took control of the House, they placed a term limit on chairmanships of six years.

“Unless that's changed — and we've been lobbying for it — this will be the last two years of Rep. Combest's chairmanship. He has a great love for agriculture and cares deeply about facilitating the empowerment of this great industry, and we would hate to lose his experience and authority.”

(Subsequent to the meeting, Rep. Combest announced he would resign in six months due to “personal reasons,” among them the recent death of his 88-year old father.)