Taking stock of elections: What does it mean for agriculture?

It has been about a month since the mid-term elections, and with the dust still settling on the political landscape, now might be a good time to try and determine whether or not the results bode well or bode ill for agriculture, especially considering that a new farm bill is imminent. Or, to determine if the results will make any difference whatsoever in future farm policy.

This past month's election, described repeatedly by television's talking heads as a change of “tsunami” proportions, brought to mind the Southern Peanut Growers Conference held this past summer in Panama City, Fla.

A congressman from Georgia was on the program, presumably to speak about the status of disaster legislation, or perhaps the direction of farm bill discussions. Keep in mind that this was in the middle of the summer, during one of the worst combinations of drought and heat seen in some time. Many of the farmers in the crowd were understandably in a despondent mood, hoping for at least the possibility of good news from Washington.

Instead, the congressmen launched into a several-minutes-long partisan harangue, boasting that he and his wife both carried guns, that he noticed from the bumper stickers in the parking lot that some in the crowd were “misled,” and warning of the terrible consequences that would befall the nation if Democrats gained control of the U.S. House of Representatives.

It's doubtful this is the message most folks in the audience wanted to hear. To be fair, this particular congressman was re-elected this past month. But many just like him were sent packing by the voters, with exit polls revealing that people generally are sick and tired of partisan posturing, and they want elected officials who'll work to find real solutions to their problems.

The changes in both the House and the U.S. Senate were dramatic, with Democrats gaining control of both houses of Congress. Of course, of immediate concern to the majority of Americans is how the revamped Congress will address the major issues of the day, such as the war in Iraq and national security. But of primary importance here and now is the election's impact on agricultural legislation, specifically a new farm bill.

Many agricultural groups think one area where the new Democratically-controlled Congress can help some farmers is in the passage of a guest worker program, which stalled this year after passage in the Senate. Known as the AgJobs bill, the program would address a growing, critical shortage of agricultural labor, especially in Southeastern states like Florida and Georgia. And President Bush probably had more support on the bill from Democrats than he did from his own party.

The American Farm Bureau Federation states that it is optimistic, following the election, about furthering key policy priorities on behalf of farmers and ranchers, including “leading the charge for maintaining the basic structure and foundation of the current farm program.”

The organization also believes there are renewed opportunities to pursue: comprehensive immigration reform, including U.S. agriculture's need for an adequate legal workforce; a greater role for home-grown renewable fuels for America; disaster assistance legislation for farmers and ranchers; and improved market access opportunities for U.S. agricultural products.

Turning to specific leadership positions related to agriculture, it's expected that Collin Peterson of Minnesota will take over as chairman of the House Committee on Agriculture in place of Virginia's Bob Goodlatte. Peterson, who has a farming background, is a staunch advocate of renewable energy. According to Reuters, Peterson, in an interview last month, appeared to lean toward a “continuation” of the crop and dairy supports that have comprised the keystones of previous farm bills. Peterson also has seemed disinclined to support proposals that would lower the current limit of $360,000 a year in subsidy payments to each farmer — perhaps an indication of where he would stand as debate is taken up on the new farm bill next year.

On the Senate side, Iowa's Tom Harkin is in line to become chairman of the Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry Committee in place of Georgia's Saxby Chambliss. In the past, Harkin has tended to support government subsidies for farmers.

On the issue of free trade, both Peterson and Harkin probably would be categorized more as nationalists rather than internationalists, and it's doubtful either one would allow carte blanche to the World Trade Organization in writing a new farm bill.

There still are many uncertainties as we attempt to size up this new Congress, but one thing is for sure. U.S. farm groups will not be successful in attaining their goals if they don't present a united front, especially among the individual crops. In a textbook example of how not to do this, the American Corn Growers Association recently presented a plan for the next farm bill that differs significantly from the one presented by the National Corn Crowers. The U.S. Congress, when considering new farm legislation, won't show much patience with such internal differences.

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