The Jeffords Effect: Impact on National Policy Issues

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(Host) When Senator James Jeffords left the Republican party, some observers predicted the fallout could be disastrous for Vermont. They said that Republicans would react by gutting Jeffords’ favorite programs. But a year after Jeffords’ decision to become an independent, those predictions haven’t come true. Instead, several initiatives coming out of Washington seem to bear the stamp of the Vermont senator.

In the second part of our series on “The Jeffords Effect,” VPR’s John Dillon looks at the national farm plan, environmental issues and transportation policy a year later.

(Sound of a tractor noise with seagulls nearby.)

(Dillon) The chilly, wet spring has left dairy farmer David Conant about three weeks behind in his field work. He’s got hundreds of acres of corn to plant on his farm by the Winooski River in Richmond. Besides the plowing and planting, Conant also keeps a close eye on milk prices, which dropped sharply last September:

(Conant) “It’s a struggle right now for all of us. I’m certain of that. It’s very difficult for us right now, the way it is with the price of milk around $12 a hundredweight.”

(Dillon) Conant’s an independent businessman. But he works at the whim of farm policy that’s set in Washington. Last year saw the end of the Northeast Interstate Dairy Compact. The regional pricing system was approved by Congress and for five years allowed New England to set wholesale prices above the federal minimum.

Two years ago, the compact was also in trouble. But Republican Trent Lott, who was then the majority leader, helped Jeffords get the compact through Congress. But the compact was due to expire last fall. And after Jeffords’ defection, Lott wasn’t about to do Vermont any favors. So there were predictions that Jeffords’ move would harm Vermont dairy farmers.

But Jeffords extracted a promise from the new majority leader ¿ Democrat Tom Daschle of South Dakota ¿ to include a new national dairy program that would replace the compact. Conant didn’t follow the deal-making all that closely. But he says he was confident that Jeffords would protect dairy farms:

(Conant) “You know, I wasn’t. I wasn’t worried about it because I just strongly felt that he was pulling for the farmer. You know, his history has shown that. And I didn’t see how that was going to change for the Vermont dairy farmer¿. He’s a real type of guy. And what you see is what you get with him. And I think you can take him at face value for what he stood for.”

(Dillon) Daschle’s promise to Jeffords led to a national dairy program that provides payments that are similar the old compact. The payments will continue through September 2005. The compact charged the processors in order to pay farmers and there was no cost to taxpayers. The new dairy program will be paid for by taxpayers and will cost the government two to three billion dollars.

Many farmers prefer the compact. But they hope this national program will set the stage for a compact in the future. Conant’s just happy that Congress stopped the free fall drop in milk prices:

(Conant) “We need a more stable milk price. And this is going to help immensely. There’s no question about that.”

(Dillon) When he left his party, Jeffords also abandoned the chairmanship of the Senate Health committee and took over as chairman of the Environment Committee. Jeffords has emerged as an influential critic of President Bush’s energy and environmental policies. He cast a key vote against drilling for oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. And he’s pushed for legislation that would for the first time regulate carbon dioxide, the main gas blamed for global warming.

Steve Wright works for the northeast office of the National Wildlife Federation, the nation’s largest environmental group. He says Jeffords’ move shifted the debate in Washington:

(Wright) “My assessment would be¿ that there’s a significant tilt toward a pro-environment position which, from our point of view, is a good position in the long term and in the short term for the country as a whole. I wouldn’t classify it as seismic changes. But we’re looking for seismic changes down the road. And this is a way to begin to make it happen.”

(Dillon) Wright says environmentalists have gained key access to Jeffords and his committee staff. According to Wright, that access ¿ and lots of hard work ¿ will pay off in a cleaner environment.

The same committee oversees transportation projects. When President Bush proposed deep cuts in federal road budgets, Jeffords and other senators rewrote the budget to restore spending. The bill is now pending in a House and Senate conference committee. Vermont’s deputy transportation secretary, Micque Glitman, says if the Bush proposal went through, everything from rail projects to road repairs would be cut:

(Glitman) “Jeffords took the lead in building a coalition and creating collaboration on his committee to restore the funding for transportation for federal year fiscal year 2002 amounts. It’s just been wonderful having him there.”

(Dillon) Jeffords wields his power in a Senate that is still closely divided. Republicans hope to regain control in the fall elections. Middlebury College political scientist Eric Davis says the ultimate impact of Jeffords’ decision will be seen after the votes are counted in November.

(Davis) “The real effect is in terms of raising the stakes on the fall elections for the United States Senate. President Bush was quoted in the Washington Post over the weekend as saying he couldn’t work with Tom Daschle as majority leader and the only way he saw to get his agenda through in the last two years of his term was for the Republicans to retake the majority in the Senate.”

(Dillon) Davis and other observers say much hangs in the balance. The next Supreme Court justice, the future of farm and environmental policy ¿ and a host of other issues ¿ all will be determined by the fall Senate elections.

The delicate balance of power in Washington puts added political pressure on Jeffords. The Vermont senator is now campaigning for Democratic senate candidates. Although he’s promised not to work against incumbent Republicans, his staff says Jeffords makes about one campaign trip a month on behalf of Democrats who are running for open seats.

For Vermont Public Radio, I’m John Dillon.

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