[Note: This post has been updated to reflect confirmation that Blanche Lincoln will take the top Senate Agriculture Committee post. Additional updates at bottom of post--including information about Lincoln's status as a favorite of agribusiness funders.]
Late yesterday afternoon marked a dark moment for sustainable-ag advocates. Sen. Christopher Dodd (D-Conn.) announced he had decided against taking over Teddy Kennedy’s chairmanship of the Senate’s health committee, setting in motion a game of musical chairs that has propelled Blanche Lincoln (D.-Ark) to the top spot on the Senate agriculture committee. Current ag chair Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) will vacate the seat to take up the health committee chair.
For people hoping for progressive change in U.S. ag policy, this is dismal news. True, Harkin is somewhat sold out to agribusiness interests. For example, he vowed to push an agenda for the climate bill that’s even more agribusiness-friendly than that of his House counterpart, Collin Peterson (D.-Minn.).
But he’s a relatively progressive politician–and he’s been a reliable supporter of important conservation programs, and has been (by today’s standards) a champion of enforcing antitrust principles in highly consolidated agriculture markets. And he might have been expected, for example, to be a positive force in the upcoming fight over the reauthorization of the Child Nutrition Law, which funds the National School Lunch Program. The current version expires Sept. 30; reports suggest it will be extended as is and not taken up until the spring.
By that time, Lincoln will have settled in as committee chair. If Harkin is relatively progressive, Linclon spells unmitigated disaster for ag reform. Here’s how Des Moines Register ag writer Philip Brasher describes her:
Lincoln is as vigorous a proponent for large farms and livestock interests (think Arkansas-based Tyson Foods) as there is in Congress. Pair her with the panel’s senior Republican, Saxby Chambliss of Georgia, and you have a powerful one-two punch for the southern perspective on agricultural policy.
By “southern perspective on agricultural policy,” Brasher means not only a laissez-faire attitude toward meat giants like Tyson, but also generous subsidies for mass-scale cotton farms.
Perhaps worse, Lincoln is in deep political trouble in Arkansas. A solidly conservative Democrat, she nevertheless finds herself a target of right-wing rage for her support of healthcare reform. (Under pressure, she recently withdrew her support for the “public option.”)
She faces re-election in 2010–and until her move to the ag committee chair became imminent, her reelection prospects looked dim. But from her perch at atop the powerful ag committee, she’ll be much more likely to win support of the rural right, an Arkansas political observer speculated this morning.
To do so, she’ll likely make her ag agenda even more regressive. One trembles at what’s in store for the climate bill under her leadership. For her state’s ascending loony right, supporting solid climate-change legislation is tantamount to signing a pact with the Devil and the KGB. Already, she’s taken a hard line on ensuring that the climate bill will either toe the agribusiness line, or not pass at all. Kate Sheppard reports at the Washington Independent:
Lincoln recently called the House climate and energy bill “a complete non-starter,” pledging that the Senate would move more slowly on legislation do more to address regional concerns. Her own concerns have been potential rises in energy costs and impacts on agriculture. As a member of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, she agreed to support a renewable electricity standard only after it was lowered from 20 percent by 2020 to 15 percent.
Meanwhile, Arkansas-based Tyson Foods has benefitted greatly from the de facto privatization of school lunches–its prefab chicken nuggets are perfect for public schools with tiny lunch budgets and no cafeteria kitchens. Can we count on Lincoln to champion a Child Nutrition Law that mandates fresh, healthy food in schools?
Weirdly, the sustainable-ag movement finds itself in the position of hoping that Arkansas’ birthers, tea baggers, and Glenn Beck acolytes manage to take out a Democratic Senator. Such are these surreal political times.
UPDATE: In a phone conversation, Kate Fitzgerald, a senior policy analyst at the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, told me that Sen. Lincoln has demonstrated that she “understands the importance” of a robust school-lunch program–and even of one that connects schools to nearby farmers. Fitzgerald told me that during the 2007-’08 Farm Bill debate, Lincoln did support the principle of “geographical preference”–the idea that school districts can buy locally grown food in when it’s not cheaper. Whether that means Lincoln will champion the budget increases necessary to create such an improved program is a different question–one Fitzgerald had no answer for. Given the furor of the tea-bagger wing of her constituency, for whom spending on public programs amounts to Bolshevism, it seems doubtful that Lincoln will push for much-needed budget increases.
Meanwhile, I checked out the Blanche Lincoln page at the campaign-finance watchdog Open Secrets website. Agribiz donors have apparently been expecting Lincoln to rise to the top spot–or just really like her work. For the 2009-2010 election cycle, Lincoln ranks as the number-one recipient of donations among all Senatorial candidates from the following ag-related industries: Agricultural Svcs, Crop Production, Food Process/Sales, Forest Products, Poultry & Eggs. For good measure, she’s number two in the cold heart of the dairy industry. Chillingly, given the Senate ag committee’s sway over the climate bill, she’s the top recipient of cash from the Oil & Gas industry.