"I know we’ll be under tremendous pressure to cut budgets," said U. S. Congressman Charles Stenholm, D- Texas, 17th District, and ranking member of the House Agriculture Committee.
Stenholm was planting wheat on his Jones County farm during the congressional recess and discussed farm policy with Southwest Farm Press from his tractor seat. "I’ll just slow down a bit as we talk," he said over his mobile phone.
He doesn’t expect pressure on ag spending to slow much, however.
"Agricultural programs are a living target," he said. "A lot of folks will come after the 2002 law. That’s going to happen. We must continue to make the argument that we passed a good farm bill. And we can make a strong argument for that legislation."
Stenholm said an obvious target would be payment limitations.
"Some of our Corn Belt legislators will go after payment limits,’ Stenholm said. "They mostly want to take care of themselves and don’t understand the needs of rice and cotton farmers, and we have to make the arguments once again that stringent payment limitations don’t make sense."
Support may be a bit more difficult to find, however. Missing from the Republican ranks by late spring will be Texan Larry Combest, chairman of the House Agriculture Committee who, like Stenholm, was a key force in pushing the farm bill into law.
"Larry was a strong advocate for the aspects of the farm bill that we eventually passed," Stenholm said. He said Combest did not have across-the-board support from his fellow Republicans and had to work hard to secure their votes.
"But we still have a good law. It’s right for the times, especially with the World Trade Organization (WTO) discussions."
Before Congress begins to dismantle any key element of the 2002 law, he said, trade negotiators must negotiate with trading partners to level the playing field.
Stenholm said agriculture would not be exempt from budget cuts, regardless of how good the arguments are.
"We’re prepared to take our fair share," he said. "We’ve always been willing to do that. And if we see constructive changes that show how we can spend money more efficiently for agriculture, we’ll certainly be interested."
Stenholm said the stage has changed since the November elections gave Republicans control of all both legislative branches of Congress along with the executive branch.
"I think things will change," he said. "And I mean that in a positive way. No reason exists to play the blame game any longer."
Stenholm said the "Bluedog Democrats," a group of mostly Sunbelt legislators, who consider themselves moderates, are ready to go to work with the Republican-controlled Congress. "It’s no longer a case where we can blame Republicans or Republicans can blame Democrats," Stenholm said. "It’s we as members of Congress that have a job to do."
He said Congress must do something about issues such as Social Security and rural health. "The Bluedogs are ready to get to work.".
Stenholm also noted that the agriculture committee will get involved in the continuing dispute over Mexico’s refusal to abide by a 1944 water treaty.
"They simply refuse to live up to their agreement," he said. "Sooner or later, the ag committee will get involved. This issue must be resolved and the resolution will include much more than just water. Trade, border issues and national security all will play a role. And that should prove to be a positive effort."
He said Texas agriculture needs Mexican labor. "But we need it to be legal."
Stenholm said President bush had proposed a solution to Congress but had little backing from Republicans. That’s one issue Stenholm believes will change with a new Congress.
He said the clock is ticking on the water issue. "Time is running out to do positive things to resolve the dispute," he said.