With the 2002 farm bill dragging on for so long, how could you pick a turning point in the debate? Some would argue the April 23 meeting between a group of Southern Democrats and Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle was pivotal in getting a final agreement.
At the time, farm bill conferees were deadlocked over loan rates and packer ownership of livestock. Observers were mystified that Daschle, who almost single-handedly forced the farm bill through the Senate, was not taking a more active role.
The April 23 meeting's organizer, Sen. Blanche Lincoln of Arkansas, said she felt it was time to bring in other Southern senators, several of whom face tight re-election bids in 2002, to try to get the conference back on track.
“Every time Tom Daschle saw me coming, he knew exactly what I wanted,” said Lincoln. “That's why I asked the other senators to come in — so Sen. Daschle could see why getting a farm bill did matter to our states.”
Besides Lincoln, Sens. Zell Miller and Max Cleland of Georgia, John Breaux and Mary Landrieu of Louisiana and Jean Carnahan of Missouri attended the meeting along with members of North Carolina Sen. John Edwards' staff. “I knew that Sen. Edwards was concerned with Step 2 because of textiles,” said Lincoln.
In Daschle's office, the senators stressed that the clock was running. “The Midwesterners kept saying ‘it will soon be time to plant,’” said Lincoln. “Our farmers were already in the field. Growers were calling us on their cell phones from their tractors. Bankers were calling to see what they could do about making crop loans.”
By the next day, the closed-door deliberations of the conference committee leadership began to take on a new sense of urgency, and by week's end, the conference managers announced they had reached an agreement, including a compromise on payment limits.
The latter kept the three-entity rule and generic certificates in the farm bill, which was gratifying to Lincoln, who led the fight against the Grassley-Dorgan amendment on the Senate floor.
“I had senators coming up to me for several days after the debate, saying that they didn't understand the impact the Grassley-Dorgan amendment would have on our farmers,” she said. “I don't know why they didn't because I had talked until I was blue in the face about it.
“I tried to point out that their farmers were not going to get any more because ours got less,” she said. “The fact is the Grassley amendment would have put a tremendous acreage out of cotton and rice and into corn and soybeans, which would have meant even lower prices in the Midwest.”
At presstime, the Senate was scheduled for 12 hours of debate before a vote on the conference report on May 8. Even so, Sen. Lincoln said she believes the Senate would pass the conference report.
“One benefit of this process has been the effort to recognize the incredible diversity we have in American agriculture,” she said. “The debate has come to be based more on geographics than partisanship; and, because of that, we will work through this.”