Efforts to save dairy compacts persevere

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WASHINGTON – The effort to keep dairy compacts alive has followed a long and circuitous path through the halls of Congress.

And although the Northeast Interstate Dairy Compact expired Sept. 30, the idea that the compact might be resurrected, that it might be expanded, and that it include the whole country in a program that might even include a national milk pool, is still alive.

The House passed the new Farm Security Act Oct. 5 without dairy compacts, despite two separate efforts to get them amended into the bill during the floor debate.

But compact supporters have not given up. They are now looking toward the Senate, which has yet to bring its version of the farm bill reauthorization to the floor. Sen. James Jeffords of Vermont is expected to lead a fight to include compacts in the legislation.

Left behind. In comments on the Senate floor in August, Jeffords expressed his disappointment with the proposed Senate farm bill (S. 1246) and said that “this legislation leaves my farmers behind” by not authorizing the Northeast Interstate Dairy Compact.

Even the House version of the farm bill did not pass without one of dairy compacts’ main advocates inserting a little room for compacts to continue to breathe.

Rep. James Walsh, who represents the 25th District in central New York, has been one of the leaders of the House effort to get compacts approved.

He is a senior member of the House Appropriations Committee and the second ranking Republican on the House Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee, and represents a district that includes dozens of small- and medium-sized dairy farms.

He has been joined in his ongoing efforts by Don Sherwood of Pennsylvania, Asa Hutchinson of Arkansas, Sonny Callahan of Alabama, David Vitter of Louisiana, Bernie Sanders of Vermont, John McHugh of New York, and John Sweeney of New York.

Proposed ratification. The group introduced legislation in May that would have ratified compacts in the 25 states that have already passed enabling legislation and provide permanent authorization for dairy compacts in all areas of the country.

That bill, (HR 1827), was referred to the House Judiciary Committee’s subcommittee on commercial and administrative law, where no further action has been taken.

Since then, the group has attempted to get the measure amended first to the agricultural appropriations bill and then to the new farm bill.

In June, when Walsh backed down in the face of leadership pressure to pursue the appropriations process, he urged Judiciary Chairman James Sensenbrenner to hold a full hearing on the bill. The Judiciary Committee has jurisdiction over issues of interstate compacts.

That question was brought up once again during the House debate on the Farm Bill, when an entire hour was devoted to the debate over whether or not an amendment authorizing dairy compacts could be introduced into the farm bill debate.

Just not right. When the amendment and any further debate was ruled not germane, Rep. Duke Cunningham, whose San Diego County district in California allowed him to proclaim that he, personally, did not “have a dog in this fight on dairy farmers” urged a vote be allowed in the interest of “rightness.”

“The chairman of the Judiciary is against dairy compacts,” he said. “That is why they want it referred there, because it will never see the light of day in Judiciary. He will kill it and stop this body from having a fair vote on the issue.”

Finally, Walsh proposed an amendment to the farm bill, which then passed by voice vote, that directs the Secretary of Agriculture to complete by April 30 a “comprehensive evaluation of the potential direct and indirect effects of the various elements of the national dairy policy.”

Dairy policy, in the amendment, is defined as federal milk marketing orders, interstate dairy compacts, over-order premiums and state pricing programs, direct payments to milk producers, federal milk price support program, and expert programs.

A placeholder. Walsh considers that the amendment now creates a “placeholder” in the farm bill that gives supporters a platform to keep dairy compacts alive when the bill goes to conference committee to be reconciled with any bill passed by the Senate.

Dairy state representatives, especially those from the Upper Midwest and from California, expressed two major reservations toward dairy compacts. The first was a concern for overproduction if the compact was expanded out of New England and dairy farmers in general were guaranteed a premium price for their Class I milk.

The second was the fear that a supported price for Class I milk would have a negative effect on the price for milk used for cheese and other manufactured milk products.

In the Upper Midwest less than 10 percent of milk produced is sold as Class I fluid milk.

Prevail in end. Dan Smith, executive director of the Northeast Compact Commission, expressed the feeling at the final commission meeting in September that he is still optimistic that “the substance of what we have been trying to accomplish, and now with the proof of what we actually have accomplished, will prevail over base politics.”

The International Dairy Foods Association, representing milk, cheese, and ice cream industry processors, has long opposed the authorization of dairy compacts and said it was pleased that the House defeated the several dairy amendments to the Farm Bill, and there was no inclusion of dairy compact legislation.

“If expanded,” the association has said, “dairy compacts could raise milk prices for 60 percent of consumers. What was supposed to be a temporary deal for New England now threatens to become a permanent price-fixing scheme in 28 states.”

(You can contact Jackie Cummins at 1-800-837-3419, ext. 23, or by e-mail at jcummins@farmanddairy.com.)

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