What the midterms mean for federal ag-policy reform
Illustration: Eugene Smith/Flickr (from a series of illustrations done for “Horrorscopes,” Chronicle Books)The House and Senate ag committees, that two-headed monster that dominates federal ag policy, both have a new look after the midterms.
In short, the Senate committee is getting a new chair, while the rest of it remains largely the same. The House committee’s transformation is much deeper — not only has it shifted from Democratic to Republican leadership, but more than a third of its members were ousted by the electorate.
What does this mean for farm policy ahead of looming 2012 Farm Bill negotiations? First, the details.
The Senate: Power struggle at the top
Senate Committee chair Blanche Lincoln (D-Ark.), a Blue-Dog Democrat with fierce loyalty to her state’s industrial meat and cotton interests, is out (as expected).
Associated Press is reporting that her likely successor is either Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) or Kent Conrad (D-N.D.). Ben Nelson (D-Neb.), the subject of speculation last week, now has only an “outside chance” of grabbing the gavel, AP reports.
There’s actually some evidence Stabenow might be a relatively progressive committee chair — her state, unlike its Midwestern neighbors, is a large producer of an array of fruits and vegetables, and doesn’t churn out much in the way of corn, soy, and meat. And therefore the forces of Big Ag are lining up against her, AP reports:
Lobbyists for the powerhouse commodities of corn, wheat, soybeans, rice and cotton, which benefit most from U.S. crop-support programs, are wary of Stabenow. Her home state of Michigan is a major producer of fruits, vegetables and dairy products. Stabenow “doesn’t have a real high profile on some of the big ticket, marquee agriculture issues,” said Mark McMinimy, an agribusiness analyst with the MF Global Washington Research Group. Stabenow has also supported shifting more resources into conservation programs, which doesn’t always sit well with the big farm lobby.
Kent Conrad, by contrast, hails from an industrial-ag-rich state. And as a veteran ag committee member, he has helped craft past Farm Bills — ones that have met with the approval of Big Ag lobbyists.
Is change in the House? Not fundamentally.
If the Senate committee awaits a new chair while remaining otherwise largely the same, the House Committee has been transformed — at least in party-affiliation terms. Before the election, Democrats held 28 of the committee’s 46 seats. But 16 of those Dems lost their elections Tuesday. And with the House falling to the Republicans, mighty Colin Peterson (D-Minn.), a formidable advocate for industrial-ag interests, will have to cede the gavel that he has wielded with such brutal skill.
But in ag politics, party matters less than geography. Peterson’s likely successor, Frank Lucas (R-Oklahoma) will push a similar Big Ag agenda. Back in April, Lucas was lecturing the Obama administration about how reforming current ag policy would transform rural areas into “bedroom communities” for urban areas, wiping out agriculture. Translation: Keep ag policy just the way it is …
Among the committee rank and file, the farm lobby scored a major victory when Robert Gibbs, former president, of the Ohio branch of that lobbying stronghold, the American Farm Bureau, unseated soon-to-be former House ag committee member Zach Space (D-Ohio). Gibbs, who will likely take Space’s spot on the committee, is a former industrial-scale hog farmer.
Bad trade: Implications for policy
So what does all this change amount to? Viz. the 2012 Farm Bill, these committees will find themselves in an interesting spot: Many of their members, new and old, have been running as “deficit hawks” obsessed with balancing the budget. It will be tricky for them to square that attitude with demands for large federal expenditures to prop up industrial agriculture.
It’s too early to tell how the committees will solve this riddle. But two points of agreement around ag policy as a whole are emerging, reports Daniel Looker of Agriculture.com. From my perspective, neither is benign.
The first involves trade. President Obama has famously vowed to double U.S. agricultural exports within five years, and he will find eager allies on both sides of the aisles in both committees, says Looker. Booming ag exports bolster the bottom lines of grain traders such as ADM and Cargill and meat giants such as Tyson and Smithfield — and mean yet more ecologically ruinous industrial corn and meat production in the U.S. farmland. The U.S. ag machine also tends to undercut farmers in the global south, imperiling food security.
The second one is much less conducive to Obama’s agenda — but no less insidious: an attack on the EPA, which Senate ag committee member Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) charmingly calls “End Production Agriculture now,” Looker reports. (Not sure how the “n” fits into the acronym.) Grassley worries that the EPA will crack down on pollution from factory farming — and is practically dancing in the aisles at the prospect of sticking it to the EPA. “There’s a lot of [EPA] regulations like that that are very anti-agriculture and I think there will be an opportunity to intervene to prevent some of these policies from going into effect,” he told Looker.
Even before the outcome of the mid-term elections became clear, progressive reform of federal agriculture policy already faced steep hurdles — most of them erected by the lobbying power of Big Ag interests. Now those hurdles are higher.
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