If there’s one thing America’s cotton farmers pray for more than rain, it’s a safety net–just like every other U.S. agricultural commodity.
Back in December, that prayer appeared to be in the process of being answered in Washington as the Texas cotton harvest was winding down.
In what some describe as a “miracle” legislative feat, the U.S. House Committee on Agriculture, led by its chairman U.S. Rep. Mike Conaway (R-Midland), did what couldn’t be done in the 2014 Farm Bill: resolve the plethora of political problems and budgetary botheration that the country’s most contentious commodity would invariably present to the next Farm Bill’s negotiations.
The committee passed a provision out of the lower chamber to make cotton growers once again eligible for the Farm Bill’s Title 1 price support program. That provision— which was scored by the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) as budget neutral—was part of the $81 billion disaster aid package on December 21.
That was four weeks ago.
Since then, politicians from both ends of the spectrum have decried the inclusion of cotton in a natural disaster bill aimed at assisting scorched swaths of California as well as hurricane ravaged Texas, Florida, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands.
But in cotton country— most particularly in southeast Texas where Hurricane Harvey rained down $100 million in farm damages—“disaster” isn’t too far of a stretch.
Freshman U.S. Rep. Jodey Arrington (R-Lubbock) was elected from the nation’s largest cotton patch on the heels of one of the worst crop years on record. Between 2012 and 2016, American net farm income dropped 56% while operating costs rose 33 percent. A scenario Conaway succinctly characterizes as “the worst farm economy slide since the Great Depression.”
Arrington, an agriculture committee member described by insiders as “Conaway’s cotton wingman,” helped whip votes on the cotton provision. In an interview with Breitbart Texas, Arrington expressed both excitement and concern about the proposal going forward.
“To get a safety net outside of the Farm Bill is a once in a lifetime opportunity.” But his worry: “If the disaster bill drags into February, it gets consumed in the political tornado of DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals), CHIP (Children’s Health Insurance Program) and a government shutdown. Then the window of budget-neutral status for cotton could close.”
“The window closing” has increasingly become the primary concern for cotton country representatives on Capitol Hill. The CBO typically issues a new baseline each year in late January. If a new baseline drops in the days ahead and cotton’s safety net scores anything above $0, the House proposal could be in serious jeopardy. Not only would cotton be caught in a political tornado, it would be exposed to powerful senators like Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), Patrick Leahy (D- Vermont), and Debbie Stabenow (D-Michigan), all of whom have records of opposition to cotton, along with other Southern commodities. Conaway, who blistered Stabenow last May for “sabotaging” cotton, included language in the House bill to alter dairy safety nets, if need be, in order to mitigate any reprisals from the Michigan’s senior senator.
Concern was echoed in a statement to Breitbart Texas from Texas Sen. Ted Cruz’s Communication Advisor Catherine Frazier: “Senator Cruz understands the economic difficulties that cotton farmers in Texas are facing … It is critically important that the Senate take up a disaster relief bill as soon as possible, ensure it is not entangled in other policy issues and pass it with bipartisan support.”
Cruz seems to be striking all the right chords with cotton– although concerns have grown about his recent entry into a public feud with the corn growers over Renewable Fuel Standard caps, presumably on behalf of the oil industry. It’s seen by some as the wrong battle with the wrong people at the wrong time.
Frustrations and window closing concerns were heightened Wednesday as reports surfaced in the Houston Chronicle that Republicans facing a government shutdown on Friday at midnight have punted action on the disaster aid bill, likely moving any action on to mid-February. Instead, they’ll pursue a stop-gap continuing resolution that includes CHIP, an effort to wrangle Democratic votes and offset GOP defections.
The disaster bill’s stall in the Senate seems inexplicable to many outside the beltway. Notably, when asked about significant contributors to delays on action, sources close to the process cite Texas Gov. Greg Abbott’s position on aid to his state within the current disaster supplemental. I’m told Abbott signed off on the package within the past 48 hours.
Asked for comment, Abbott’s Deputy Communications Director Ciara Matthews said, “Any delay is not on the governor’s end, he has worked closely with members of the House and Senate throughout the process.” The governor’s office also provided Breitbart Texas with an early release of a letter to be sent to Senate Appropriations Committee leadership later today.
This week, an impassioned Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner (D) said that delaying a disaster aid vote into next month is “not going to put people in the best position to get prepared for the next storm or weather event.”
Weathering a different kind of storm, without a safety net, exposed to uncertain global market conditions, cotton growers are now lining up financing and planning 2018 crops. In the current uncertainty, many would “amen” Turner’s assessment.
Cotton needs another miracle.
Below is the provided text of Gov. Abbott’s letter to Senate Appropriations:
Dear Chairman Cochran and Vice Chairman Leahy, [See editor’s note below. This letter was ultimately sent to Texas Senators Cornyn and Cruz instead of the originally listed recipients.]
As you know, the cotton industry has faced enormous setbacks in recent years. Among other losses, it was the only commodity extracted from the 2014 Farm Bill safety net. In addition, U.S. farm income has dropped 50% over the last three years, the steepest decline since the Great Depression. The industry has also faced the onslaught of foreign governments like China who, through price manipulation and unfair practices, have made it increasingly challenging for U.S. producers to compete and survive.
We now have a narrow window of opportunity to get cotton back in the safety net through a budget-neutral fix that was passed in the House supplemental spending bill in December. I appreciate the work you’ve done on this and strongly urge you and your colleagues in the Senate to immediately pass the various agriculture provisions in the House-passed disaster supplemental, as quickly as possible, to ensure it remains budget neutral and adequately addresses the needs of Texans. Your swift action will benefit not only the thousands of cotton producers in the largest cotton producing state of Texas, but for producers across the country.
Greg Abbott, Governor of the State of Texas
UPDATE: The Governor of Texas sent this letter to Texas Senators John Cornyn and Ted Cruz, not to the originally addressed recipients.
Jay Leeson is, among other things, a writer and talk radio host in Lubbock. His new radio program The Other Side of Texas debuts on February 5. Follow him on Twitter @jayleeson or contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.