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U.S. catfish industry loses champion following Sen. Cochran’s resignation

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The U.S. catfish industry is losing its top advocate in the Senate following Sen. Thad Cochran’s (R-Miss.) announcement that he would resign April 1. Cochran is chairman of the powerful Senate Committee on Appropriations and former chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee.

Citing health problems that caused him to miss several weeks in the Senate last fall, the 80-year-old lawmaker from Mississippi announced he would resign from the Senate on Monday (March 5).

“I regret my health has become an ongoing challenge,” Cochran stated. “I intend to fulfill my responsibilities and commitments to the people of Mississippi and the Senate through the completion of the 2018 appropriations cycle, after which I will formally retire from the U.S. Senate.”

Cochran’s resignation means the influential Senate Appropriations gavel is up for grabs. Sen. Richard Shelby (R-Ala.), who filled in as chair of the committee during Cochran’s recent absences, is widely expected to take over the position.

To avoid another government shutdown, Congress must pass a massive fiscal 2018 funding bill by March 23, about a week before Cochran will step down.

Cochran has also served on the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition, and Forestry since being sworn in as Senator. He was the panel’s chairman from 2003-2004. He is currently a senior member of the committee, and played a pivotal role in helping to enact the 2014 Farm Bill while serving as the panel’s ranking member from 2013-2014.

Cochran, whose home state of Mississippi produces over 50% of U.S. domestic catfish, championed the controversial transfer of catfish inspection authority from FDA to USDA in the 2008 and 2014 Farm Bills.

USDA’s final catfish rule was published in December 2015, and became effective on March 1, 2016 with an 18-month implementation period. USDA began enforcing all regulatory requirements for both domestic and imported catfish under the program on Sept. 1, 2017.

 

“Sen. Cochran has long been a champion for Mississippians and all of Rural America ... He has never been afraid to tackle the tough issues and his tenacity will be missed. The American Consumer has a safer dinner table thanks to Senator Cochran.” - Chad Causey, spokesman for Catfish Farmers of America

But the Trump administration has requested no funding for the catfish inspection program and to move it back to FDA in the latest budget request.

Catfish has become a lightning rod when it comes to discussing U.S./Vietnam trade relations, and it came as no surprise when Vietnam, which views USDA’s increased inspection authority over catfish as a barrier to trade, recently challenged the United States over the program at the World Trade Organization.

As implementation continues, USDA recently announced that only Vietnam, the People’s Republic of China (PRC) and Thailand will be allowed to continue to ship catfish products to the United States after March 1 as they were the only countries that could show on paper their inspection system is equivalent.

Cochran also recently advocated for legislation that would compel the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) to require imported shrimp to comply with its new Seafood Import Monitoring Program (SIMP) recordkeeping requirements, which recently went into effect for several other species.

“It has been a great honor to serve the people of Mississippi and our country,” Cochran said. “I’ve done my best to make decisions in the best interests of our nation, and my beloved state.  My top concern has always been my constituents in Mississippi.” 

The Catfish Farmers of America wished the lawmaker well.

“Sen. Cochran has long been a champion for Mississippians and all of Rural America,” the group’s spokesman Chad Causey said. “His steadfast leadership in the U.S. Senate has ensured great strides for American agriculture throughout his career. He has never been afraid to tackle the tough issues and his tenacity will be missed.  The American consumer has a safer dinner table thanks to Sen. Cochran. We look forward to working with the Senator as he closes out a successful and productive career in public service.”  

Cochran’s Senate term was not set to expire until 2020, and his retirement also means two Senate seats will now be open in Mississippi in the 2018 November midterm election. Republicans currently hold a narrow 51-to-49 seat majority over Democrats in the Senate, and another race could upset this balance. 

Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant (R.) will have 10 days to appoint an interim senator to take over Cochran’s responsibilities until a special election is held in November to fill the rest of Cochran’s term.

Potential candidates that have been floated so far to fill the interim position are Bryant, Mississippi Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves, and Mississippi Secretary of State Delbert Hosemann.

Cochran’s seat has also attracted the attention of a former USDA official.

One possible candidate to run for the newly open Senate seat in November is Mike Espy, President Bill Clinton’s first secretary of agriculture and a former Democratic congressman. Espy said he has a “strong intention to run” following the news of Cochran’s retirement, according to The New York Times.

Sen. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.) will be defending his seat in the 2018 midterm re-election vote, and has been endorsed by President Donald Trump. He is challenged by Republican State Sen. Chris McDaniel, a controversial tea party member, who ran against Cochran in the 2014 congressional election. McDaniel said he is considering switching races to run for Cochran’s vacant seat in November.

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