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Change in Congress means change in ag policy
Food & Farm File
By Alan Guebert
Leaving a backlog of work it clearly had no appetite for, a deeply divided, very worried Congress skedaddled out of Washington the end of September to make its re-election case to an equally divided, equally worried electorate.

Will the chilly winds of October blow the GOP from power?

Maybe, but political handicappers of all stripes see the race for control of Congress a toss-up.

So do the voters, especially rural voters. A late September, Center for Rural Strategies poll found 41 predominantly rural Congressional races in dead heats. Pollsters Anna Greenburg and Bill Greener - she a Democrat, he a Republican - agree that the rural vote holds the key to who will hold power Nov. 8.

While the election’s outcome is up for grabs, its effect on farm policy is more certain. If the GOP keeps its majority in either the Senate or the House or both, expect the respective ag committee leaders to remain:

•Southern or, more to the point, pro-cotton and rice and anti-WTO

•Loyal to White House requests to cut overall ag spending rather than pare back or allow previous tax cuts to expire to balance the federal budget

•Anti-country of origin labeling (COOL) and anti-Conservation Security Program (CSP)

The almost exact opposite is true for all the above should either or both chambers switch to a Democratic majority.

Indeed, corn and soybean Midwesterners would replace the cotton and rice Southerners as ag committee leaders if the Dems rise to power.

In the Senate, Iowan Tom Harkin would reclaim the chair he occupied briefly - and effectively: he is the political godfather of the CSP - during the writing of the 2002 Farm Bill.

Should the Dems knock off the House, a better likelihood than capturing the Senate at the moment, Minnesotan Collin Peterson would become Ag Committee chairman.

He’s a farmboy turned CPA turned politician and has been a committee member since 1990. He’s also a pay-as-you-go Blue Dog tightwad.

A Dem House win would also anoint Congresswoman Rosa DeLauro, a tax-cutting Yankee from Connecticut, chair of the House Appropriations Subcommittee for Agriculture, Rural Development, FDA and Related Agencies. (She’s also the mother of above-mentioned pollster Anna Greenberg.)

That switch would rattle the anti-COOL meatpacker gang down to its billion-dollar bones because DeLauro’s rise would unseat Congress’ main opponent to country of origin labeling, Henry Bonilla, the Texas Republican who single-handedly has kept red meat COOL in the freezer for four years.

Similarly, Harkin’s Conservation Security Program would see a reprise under the Democrats. When devised, CSP was to serve two key purposes.

First, and unlike the now-20-year-old Conservation Reserve Program, CSP was to be a soil and water conserving program on working farmland, not idled land.

Second, it was a transfer payment scheme well within the bounds of the World Trade Organization’s rules. In short, it was a dream, green price support machine that was aimed at replacing production-based, direct payment methods the WTO had in its gunsights.

CSP has gone nowhere under House Republicans, however, because they allowed USDA to drag its feet in writing the program’s rules - which, when finally released, made CSP unworkable - and they under-funded it by an estimated $4 billion.

The House meddling with these two 2002 Farm Bill components - key Democratic additions, incidentally - and USDA’s complicity in both will spur a Democratic-led House and/or Senate Ag Committee to renew oversight of USDA, an agency now tuned into politics more than policy.

Also, should the Dems retake the House, incoming ag boss Peterson would seek an aggressive biofuels title in the 2007 Farm Bill that would likely include an additional 5 million acres of ethanol-targeted switch grass in the Conservation Reserve Program.

Despite these differences, both parties agree on two issues. First, a new Farm Bill will be written in 2007; an extension of current legislation is highly unlikely. Second, the stalled - or even revived - WTO talks will not influence 2007 policy makers.

After those two similarities, though, the ag policy gulf between the GOP and Dems widens to offer farming and ranching voters clear choices.

This farm news was published in the Oct. 11, 2006 issue of Farm World, serving Indiana, Ohio, Illinois, Kentucky, Michigan and Tennessee.

10/10/2006