112th Congress Starts Today But Same Issues Confront Lawmakers

January 5, 2011 01:58 AM

As the shift in control of the U.S. House is to take place today with the start of the 112th Congress, much focus is on what this change will mean for U.S. policy on a host of fronts, including agriculture.

The ceremonial passing of the gavel from House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) to Rep. John Boehner (R-Ohio) will take place today and will return split control of the legislative branches of the U.S. government.

As Republicans take control of the House, they've made clear they will focus on budget issues and will target some of the Obama administration's efforts in areas like regulation.

Republicans will have a 242-193 majority in the House, while Senate Democrats and their two independent allies will hold a majority of 53 seats, compared with 47 for Republicans.

Overall, 96 new House members will be sworn in Wednesday (87 Republicans and nine Democrats). Republicans in the midterm elections picked up 63 House seats, retaking the majority they lost in 2006. In the Senate, 13 new members will be sworn in today (12 Republicans and one Democrat).

The budget focus will be intense, especially given the pledge by Republicans to cut $100 billion from government spending this year. But as the shift is to take place in Washington, reports indicate that budget cut is also shifting -- perhaps declining by half from that intended level. And even though agriculture spending makes up a small -- to very small -- portion of the federal budget, it won't escape the budget knife. The key will be whether that is a knife or an axe when it comes to the cuts.

The budget will be a key discussion point as the implementation of the food safety legislation takes place, Even though the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) says that many provisions in the bill can be implemented without additional funding from Congress, the price tag for the bill was put at an additional $1.4 billion. And some Republican lawmakers maintain the food supply is already 99.999% safe so extra dollars for the implementing the bill will have to get in line with the rest of the budget priorities.

On the regulatory front, it looks like Lisa Jackson, administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, had better keep an open path to the door and a car waiting to take her to the Hill to testify. Incoming chairs of several panels have indicated they want to have Jackson appear before their panels as they look at the regulatory actions taken by the administration. And that includes the House Ag Committee.

Trade matters will also confront lawmakers as the Obama administration has pledged to send the implementing legislation for the U.S.-Korea free trade agreement (FTA) to Congress for their up-or-down vote. That will present a test for unions and ag interests alike as they jockey to whip up support for their position on that trade deal.

With the Senate still in hands of Democrats -- albeit with a much smaller majority than they had during the 111th Congress -- it sets up the possibility that gridlock could be the norm in Washington. President Obama clearly reached out to Republicans with the tax cut/stimulus agreement late in 2010. Whether that cooperation continues in the 112th Congress remains to be seen.

So it's a new day in Washington which is marked by the same issues that have dominated the Washington landscape. The challenge for new lawmakers now will be whether they can come to some agreement on many of these key issues. If not, it could be a long winter in Washington that might make spring look mighty enticing.



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