Election shifts balance of power in ag committees

Nov 5, 2010

The House of Representatives switched hands in last Tuesday’s elections with Republicans handing Democrats their largest loss in the House in seven decades. In the Senate, losses were also steep, although the Democrats managed to maintain a slim majority. Republicans managed to gain seats in Illinois, Indiana, North Dakota, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and, perhaps for agriculture, most surprisingly in Arkansas, where Democratic incumbent Blanche Lincoln was defeated by her Republican challenger.

National Cattlemen’s Beef Association (NCBA) Executive Director of Legislative Affairs Colin Woodall said that although the results of the election were largely positive, the loss of Lincoln was a big one for agricultural interests.

"Last night was a big night, but we have some mixed emotions about some of the results," said Woodall. "The biggest loss for us was Blanche Lincoln; she is a big supporter of cattle producers."

Lincoln lost to Republican Rep. John Boozman, who won’t have the same clout or experience as Lincoln ahead of the coming Farm Bill debate, an issue which is particularly important to producers who will have to live with the impacts of the policy. Southern farmers who depend on government subsidies for crops such as cotton and rice may feel the greatest impacts from Lincoln’s loss as there were few Democratic advocates for the payments. When the next Farm Bill is crafted, those subsidy payments could face difficulties given the attitudes toward spending in Washington, D.C., with the new crop of senators and representatives. Cattle producers, too, will feel the loss though. Woodall said there isn’t a clear successor for the chair of the Senate Agriculture committee for the time being.

"That’s the biggest parlor game in Washington, D.C., right now, trying to figure out who is going to be getting these committee assignments," said Woodall. "But, right now, though, it looks like (Democrat) Dana Stabenow from Michigan might be a possible successor to Lincoln."

He said Stabenow would be a good pick, one who was familiar with cattle producers’ interests, but was largely untested on the most important issues facing cattlemen.

"We had a 100 percent advantage with Lincoln. She was 100 percent with us on the issues," said Woodall, who emphasized that he is looking forward to working with the next Senate Ag committee chair when the decision is announced.

With the shift to Republican control in the House of Representatives, House Ag Committee Chair Collin Peterson, D-MI, will lose his seat and a Republican will take charge ahead of the Farm Bill negotiations. In the House, the line of succession is a little more certain.

"It looks like Frank Lucas is going to get the chairmanship in the House Ag Committee," said Woodall. "Rep. Lucas is a longtime friend of NCBA and the cattle industry. He’s likely to be an active chairman and one that’s likely to ask the hard questions about the issues like the GIPSA [Grain Inspection Packers and Stockyards Administration] rules and what’s going on behind the scenes there."

NCBA President Steve Foglesong pointed out last week that a number of the proponents pushing those rules proposed by GIPSA were defeated last Tuesday, making their future less certain.

"This pervasive invasion of government into private business must stop. We stepped up to support our farmers and ranchers who stimulate the U.S. economy and create jobs without excessive, burdensome regulations and overreach," said Foglesong. "The Obama administration’s proposed rule on livestock and poultry marketing is an open invitation to trial lawyers and big government."

Reps. Betsy Markey, D-CO; Debbie Halvorson, D-IL; Steve Kagen, D-WI; and John Boccieri, D-OH; all were defeated last week.

"Rural America spoke up and gave the boot to candidates putting big government before innovative cattlemen who manage to feed a growing population, stimulate the economy, and create jobs without government handouts," said Foglesong. "I hope the election results serve as a clue to the Obama administration that it needs to pull this proposed rule. We do not need big government telling us how to market our cattle."

Woodall said the next big event on the radar for Congress is the coming "Lame Duck" session, where he said it’s unlikely that the GIPSA rule will be addressed.

"The comment period extends through Nov. 22, and there have been a lot of comments sent into USDA on the rule. Both USDA and Secretary Tom Vilsack have said that they intend to evaluate them thoroughly, so there probably won’t be enough time for Congress to take up the GIPSA issue before the end of the session," he said. "I think they will take their time going through the comments, so this thing is likely to stretch into next year."

Instead, Woodall said that NCBA’s efforts would be focused on the estate tax issue.

"We are completely focused on getting a fix for the death tax issue," said Woodall. "A $1 million exemption and a 55 percent tax on anything over that isn’t acceptable. Whether we’ll end up with an ag exemption or an increase in the limits isn’t clear right now, but we can’t let this slip into next year. We have to get the Death Tax issue resolved during the lame duck session." — John Robinson, WLJ Editor