Thad Cochran's tenure as chairman of the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry hasn't gotten off to an auspicious start. The first major piece of legislation offered by the Mississippi senator as chairman of the agriculture committee ran into a buzz saw in the omnibus appropriations bill conference.

The primary feature of Sen. Cochran's “Agricultural Assistance Act” — a supplemental payment equal to 42 percent of the 2002 farm bill's direct payment to farmers in declared disaster counties — was dumped in the eleventh-hour negotiations on the disaster funding amendment.

Instead, the conference committee voted to fall back on the old 35 percent loss provision of earlier disaster bills, a provision that will force thousands of farmers to come into county FSA offices and submit crop production records to determine if they qualify for one drop of assistance.

(The measure includes one-time funding of $70 million to help USDA handle the increased disaster workload in county FSA offices already strapped with trying to complete signup for the new farm bill.)

Although southern farmers are upset about the final version of the legislation, few will blame Cochran or his staff for the failure of the disaster measure to produce any meaningful assistance for the region.

It wasn't for any lack of effort on their part. From the time the Senate passed the Cochran amendment on Jan. 22 until the House-Senate conference committee reported out its bill late on Feb. 12, the Senate ag committee staff offered one proposal after another to try to pass the measure and get assistance to farmers.

Those efforts ran into opposition from House leaders convinced the Senate amendment's provisions weren't “targeted enough” and Bush administration officials who didn't want to have to take any more flack from big city newspapers and TV networks about “payments to wealthy farmers.”

In the end, the administration only grudgingly signed off on disaster assistance after House Speaker Dennis Hastert and Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist took the money from the new Conservation Security Program in the 2002 farm bill.

As was the case when Congress passed similar ad hoc disaster bills in 1998, 1999 and 2000, Sen. Cochran's supplemental payment proposal would have required only a few computer keystrokes at USDA's accounting center in Kansas City. Checks would have automatically gone out to producers in declared disaster counties.

No doubt many farmers in areas who were not suffering from droughts or floods received the supplemental payments in '98, '99 and '00. But that was the price for winning support from congressmen in those areas.

This time, those same representatives figured they could get more money for their regions if they balked at Sen. Cochran's proposal and insisted on the 35 percent loss qualification for disaster benefits because of the drought conditions in the upper Midwest. Meanwhile, southern farmers who suffered more quality losses than quantity because of monsoon-like harvest conditions will have to do without.

Maybe Sen. Cochran should have insisted that Midwesterners return the '98, '99 and '00 supplemental payments they didn't deserve to offset the cost of this year's disaster funding.

e-mail: flaws@primediabusiness.com