WASHINGTON — As a new member of the House Agriculture Committee, U.S. Rep. Charles “Chip” Pickering, a Repub-lican representing Mis-sissippi’s Third Con-gressional District, who also serves on the Commerce Commit-tee, will assist with crafting the nation’s new farm bill at a time when agribusiness issues are at the forefront of economic discussions and farmer’s livelihoods are threatened.
Last week, the Mississippi Business Journal talked with Pickering, a Laurel native and former aide to U.S. Sen. Trent Lott (R-Miss), about farm bill action, tax relief, high energy prices and a growing threat to the world’s livestock industry, foot-and-mouth disease.
Mississippi Business Journal: The current Farm Bill, also known as Freedom to Farm, was written in 1996. Even though it is not set to expire until 2002, there seems to be a lot of discussion about developing a new farm program before the expiration date. What action is being taken in Congress? What changes do you foresee in farm policy?
U.S. Rep. Chip Pickering: As a new member to the House Agriculture Committee, I am optimistic that Congress will address many issues that are important to farmers and ranchers. Since 1997, American farmers have faced consecutive years of natural disasters and low prices for most commodities. Unfortunately, it appears that farmers will again face these problems in 2001. I believe when planting conditions are favorable and global markets are experiencing positive growth, Freedom to Farm will work. Farmers like the planting flexibility that the 1996 act provides them because this allows them to plant according to market conditions. However, we have learned that Freedom to Farm needs to be changed in some way that will provide farmers with a safety net when natural disasters occur and when the economies of our trading partners fail.
Currently, we are looking into the option of adding a counter-cyclical assistance mechanism to current farm policy. This mechanism will provide farmers with assistance when prices fall below a certain level while maintaining planting flexibility that farmers appreciate. Such a mechanism will prevent the millions of dollars in ad hoc assistance payments that Congress provided to farmers over the last three years, allowing them to make better business decisions and protecting them from downturns in the economy.
MBJ: Congress is already moving ahead with President Bush’s tax relief package. Is Congress working on any tax relief plans directly targeted at farmers and ranchers?
CP: The House passed part of the president’s tax plan on March 8. This portion of the tax relief plan is aimed at lowering all marginal tax rates to help stimulate the economy and provide more fairness to all taxpayers. The Senate will consider this legislation in the next few months. Tax relief is extremely important for rural communities. Putting people’s money back into their own hands promotes investment and enhances value-added processing and production, which is especially important to agriculture. The president’s plan will not only increase the disposable income of all families, which will strengthen the economy, it will also protect Medicare and Social Security while paying down our debt at the same time.
The second component to the president’s tax relief plan focuses on reducing the marriage penalty tax and eliminating the inheritance tax, also known as the death tax. This tax is one of the most immoral taxes because it hurts and sometimes ends the practice of family farms or small businesses from being passed from generation to generation. When a parent dies, it is up to the family to pay the taxes levied upon farm land and equipment. In order to pay this tax, many farm families are forced out of business. It is un-American for the government to take away all that our families have worked so hard for all their lives.
MBJ: High energy costs are having a significant impact on all farming operations from cotton producers to poultry growers. What is Congress doing to offset these impacts?
CP: Along with low prices and declining markets, farmers are being hit with higher energy costs. These costs include higher prices paid for fuel and fertilizer. Prices for fuel and nitrogen fertilizer have doubled and tripled over the past year.
Farmers will find it even more difficult to operate in the black with input prices — particularly fuel and fertilizer costs — as high as they are now. In order to offset this problem and to prevent any further burdens being placed upon the backs of our farm families, I have introduced legislation that will provide agriculture producers with federal assistance from the USDA to offset increases in energy prices. I expect similar legislation to soon be introduced in the Senate, and this will be a top priority for those of us in Congress who represent farmers and agribusiness districts.
MBJ: In addition to low prices and natural disasters faced by farmers over the last four years, the federal government has recently proposed numerous regulations which could further burden the ability of farmers to effectively and efficiently produce food and fiber. Can you comment on some of these regulations such as the total maximum daily load (TMDL) proposal and implementation of the Food Quality Protection Act?
CP: The Clinton Administration attempted to place regulations on agriculture without proper scientific oversight, which would have had disastrous implications for agriculture and forestry had Congress not prevented these proposals from being implemented. I am a strong proponent of protecting the environment and believe that farmers are the country’s greatest stewards of environmentalism because their livelihood is directly tied to the well-being of the land. I believe in market-oriented approaches to conservation and environmentalism. A top-down, federally-mandated form of implementing environmental programs never works efficiently or effectively.
MBJ: The timber industry is extremely important to Mississippi’s economy. Unfortunately, low prices are depressing the industry leading to lumber mill closings and the loss of jobs across the country. The March 31, 2001 expiration of the U.S.-Canadian Softwood Lumber Agreement could lead to further losses. Is Congress taking steps to boost the industry and prevent further job losses?
CP: Timber is Mississippi’s No. 2 industry, second only to poultry production. I am deeply concerned about the pending expiration of the U.S.-Canadian Softwood Lumber Agreement. I strongly support trade as long as everyone is on a level playing field. The problem is that the Canadian government heavily subsidizes its lumber industry selling federally-owned timber to its mills at one-fourth to one-third of its actual market value. I have been working in Congress to ensure that the American lumber industry is protected from such unfair actions. I am supporting a congressional resolution expressing our intent for the administration to immediately renegotiate a new agreement to make sure America’s timber industry is competing on a level playing field. Without a settlement of this dispute, upon the expiration of the current agreement, we are going to see a flood of subsidized Canadian lumber entering this country. We have already lost over 100 mills nationwide, losing thousands of jobs in the process.
MBJ: Conservation practices continue to have an influence on farming and ranching operations. How do these conservation programs promote environmental protection, natural resource conservation and wildlife enhancement?
CP: Voluntary, market-oriented conservation programs such as the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) and the Wetlands Reserve Program (WRP) have provided an enormous benefit to farmers, wildlife and the environment. As chairman of the Congressional Sportsman’s Caucus, a group of over 250 members of Congress which supports the interests of the hu