Farmers who have wondered what difference a single vote could make may have cause to reflect on that question at length over the next few months.

The defection of Vermont Sen. Jim Jeffords from the Republican Party sent shock waves not only through the Congress and the White House but also through mainstream farm organizations.

When Jeffords announced May 24 he would become an independent, it reduced the number of Republican Senate seats to 49, giving permanent control to the Democrats (who hold 50 seats) for the first time since 1994.

Most of the national attention was focused on the replacement of Majority Leader Trent Lott of Mississippi by South Dakota's Tom Daschle. But, it's the change of chairmanships of key Senate committees and subcommittees that is giving the farm organizations serious heartburn.

Unless another defection occurs, Democratic Sen. Tom Harkin of Iowa will replace Richard Lugar of Indiana as chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee. Harkin recently introduced legislation that would provide more conservation payments to farmers, reducing the emphasis on income support payments.

Harkin frequently has criticized the 1996 Federal Agricultural Improvement and Reform Act or Freedom to Farm, which Sen. Lugar, one of its principal authors, staunchly defended.

For southerners, that loss could pale in comparison with the replacement of Mississippi's Thad Cochran as chairman of the Ag Appropriations Subcommittee by Wisconsin's Herb Kohl, whose primary interest is dairy farmers.

As most farmers know, Cochran wrote most of the disaster assistance legislation of the last three years, originated the double AMTA or supplemental Agricultural Market Transition Act payment and conceived the idea for the Cottonseed Assistance Program.

“Last night was one of the worst nights of my life,” said the executive director of one farm organization the day Jeffords announced his switch. “Right off the bat, I think we could lose the supplemental AMTA. But the total impact could be much greater.”

A second AMTA payment, preferably made at the 1999 rate, is critically important for Sunbelt farmers because many received crop loans only after their lenders were reasonably satisfied that Congress would provide one in 2001.

Democratic Rep. Marion Berry of Arkansas has introduced supplemental AMTA legislation in the House and recently wrote President Bush asking for his support for the payment. Sen. Blanche Lincoln, D-Ark., introduced the amendment that provided $5.5 billion for a second AMTA payment in the Senate budget resolution.

Whether Harkin and Kohl and other Democratic leaders will push as hard for another AMTA remains to be seen, however. “An AMTA payment is part of Freedom to Farm, and they don't like Freedom to Farm,” said another farm group leader.

Besides the AMTA payment, other budget items could be in doubt because of the shift in the Senate: increased federal funding for boll weevil eradication, funding for numerous agricultural research efforts, funding for infrastructure improvements such as the I-69 bridge at Greenville, Miss., a favorite project of Senator Lott's.

Writing these off so soon after Jeffords' bombshell may be premature. But, it will take some deft footwork by the major farm organizations and Sunbelt senatorial staffs to keep the funding from disappearing altogether.


e-mail: forrest_laws@intertec.com