The Hagstrom Report

Agriculture News As It Happens

Chambliss likely to lose Ag leadership but will stay involved in ag issues


ATLANTA — Senate Agriculture Committee ranking member Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga., signaled today that he will leave that leadership post to become the highest ranking Republican on the Senate Intelligence Committee, but said he would still be a member of the Agriculture committee and very involved in agriculture issues.

Speaking to reporters after a welcome speech to the American Farm Bureau Federation annual convention here, Chambliss declined to specifically address rumors that he will be moving from being ranking member on Agriculture to Intelligence. “There may be some changes that could come this week. ... Sometimes you don’t have a choice if leadership comes forward and says this is where we need you.”

Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kansas, who chaired the House Agriculture Committee during the 1996 farm bill, is expected to become the ranking Republican on Agriculture. Chambliss’s move means that the South will lose a second Agriculture leadership position; Sen. Blanche Lincoln, D-Ark., had chaired the committee, but she lost her bid for re-election. Roberts is highly respected, but Southern lobbyists have been concerned about the shift in leadership to northerners. One current committee staffer quipped, “It’s a good thing they’ve started growing cotton in Kansas.”

Some commodity growers have also expressed concern about the chairmanship of the committee shifting to Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., because she is known for advocating Michigan’s fruit and vegetable industry, but Chambliss said he had worked closely with Stabenow and that she had been supportive of commodity supports and conservation programs, as well as specialty crops.

In his speech to Farm Bureau, Chambliss noted that agriculture is leading the country out of the recession, and said he believes one reason is that “the farm bill has put in place the right kind of safety net.”

“Agriculture is as healthy as it has ever been in my lifetime,” Chambliss said, but added that the 2012 farm will be the most difficult ever, due to the pressures to cut the federal budget and continuing pressures to provide more support to specialty crops and organic production.

“There are always a few minor differences within the Agriculture committee. ... I’m confident we’ll work hard in a bipartisan way to [write] the safety net farmers need.” He said the safety net “won’t guarantee a profit,” but would help in times of trouble.

Chambliss also said he believes hearings on the 2012 farm bill will begin in 2011. House Agriculture Committee Chairman Frank Lucas, R-Okla., has said he wants to spend 2011 on oversight and want until 2012 to take up the farm bill.

Chambliss said he will look closely at whether President Obama’s budget reflects Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack’s statements that the Agriculture Department has already contributed to budget reduction through a cut in subsidies paid to companies that deliver crop insurance policies.
“I will be interested in seeing what the President’s budget says,” Chambliss said.

The current baseline for agriculture will be reduced automatically because the Obama administration negotiated a reduction in the crop insurance budget, Chambliss noted. Chambliss described the reduction as $4 to $6 billion while Obama administration officials have noted that the $6 billion cut has been divided between $4 billion for budget savings and $2 billion to be spent on improvements to other USDA programs including crop insurance. The Obama administration does not consider the $2 billion a cut in the USDA budget.

The administration negotiated the cut with the crop insurance companies using authority given by the 2008 farm bill. Government crop insurance costs had skyrocketed because higher commodity prices in recent years led to higher premiums to insure the higher value of crops and higher payments to companies and agents to deliver the policies. The 2008 farm bill gave the Agriculture Department’s Risk Management Agency the authority to negotiate a new agreement, and the Congressional Budget Office has already assumed a $3.9 billion cost savings.

Chambliss praised Farm Bureau for its work in opposing the cap and trade bill that did not pass the Senate, and for its work on the estate tax. He said he would work “to make sure [the Environmental Protection Agency] and other agencies won’t come onto your farm and look over your shoulder. ... More and more [federal] agencies are becoming more aggressive when it involves agriculture.”