Leadership Shifts Ripple to Farm Country

December 7, 2010 08:52 AM

In the historic November election, rural voters backed Republicans more than Democrats 64% to 36%. That shift from a basically even split in the past two elections was key to the Republicans gaining control of the House after four years with Democrats at the helm.

Red or blue, the focus now turns to the 112th Congress and how the leadership change will influence agriculture and rural America. Several issues, including a new farm bill, tax policy and biofuel incentives, will be major debate points when the new members take office in January.

Another key factor in the Republican gain was that 56% of independent voters sided with Republican candidates compared with 37% voting Democratic, according to exit polls by the National Election Pool. If those figures sound familiar, that’s because nearly an identical margin of independents voted in favor of Democrats in 2006. In the 2008 presidential election, 52% of independent voters selected Barack Obama.

Statistics also show that the number of voters who label themselves conservative rose by nearly one-third compared with 2006. At 42%, it is the highest percentage in some 20 years.

Lest Republicans think they have won the hearts of America’s voters, exit polling data also shows that voters view the GOP unfavorably by a 53% to 41% margin. But then, Democrats didn’t fare much better with a 52% to 44% margin.

The economy was clearly a major concern, with 49% of voters saying they are “very worried” about the economy and another 37% saying they are “somewhat worried.” More than 70% of voters said they are angry or dissatisfied with the federal government and 73% said they disapprove of the job Congress is doing.

Senate side. While control of the House rests in the hands of the Republicans, the Senate proved elusive. Heading into election night, Republicans were not expected to come up with enough gains (nine seats) to retake control of that chamber. They managed to capture six seats from Democrats—not enough to gain control but enough to considerably trim the Democratic majority.
One of those seats was in Arkansas, where Senate Ag Committee Chair Blanche Lincoln was defeated by John Boozman. She had emerged from a vicious primary, which forced her into a runoff just to make it to the general election. During the 2008 farm bill negotiations, Lincoln worked across party lines to keep programs and provisions intact that were important to Southern growers. But her bipartisan work was not enough to convince voters to keep her in Washington.

Committee leadership. New faces in Washington mean new lawmakers sitting in the top seats of the various House committees. No Republicans on the House Agriculture Committee lost their bid for another term, while 14 Democrats on the panel were ordered out of Washington by voters. That means the gavel will pass from current House Ag Committee Chairman Collin Peterson (D-Minn.) to Rep. Frank Lucas (R-Okla.).

Peterson views incoming House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio), a former member of the House ag panel, as one of his “best friends, even though we do not agree on a lot of things.” Peterson also works well with Lucas, and he predicts that the next farm bill will be a bipartisan bill no matter when it is completed.

American Farm Bureau Federation President Bob Stallman says his group stands ready to work with the new lawmakers. “Farm Bureau will work with committee members to help them
understand the role of farm programs and develop a bill that provides an effective and responsive safety net.”

In the Senate, chairmanship of the ag panel will land with Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.), as the four lawmakers with more seniority already chair panels they won’t vacate to take the ag post. Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Pat Leahy (D-Vt.) is expected to stay put. He has already served as chairman of the ag panel in the 1990s. Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee Chairman Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) held the ag panel top spot until taking his current position after the death of Sen. Ted Kennedy (D-Mass.). Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.) will likely stay on that committee, which handles tax and trade policy.

Senate Budget Committee Chairman Kent Conrad (D-N.D.) is in front of Baucus in terms of seniority on the ag panel and briefly mulled whether to take the ag panel top spot. In the end, he said he could do more for agriculture and North Dakota by sitting tight.

As Jim Wiesemeyer of Informa Economics points out, “Conrad’s decision to stay on the budget committee gives the spot to Stabenow, and now she will be beholden to him.”

New policy. The farm bill was on an accelerated path under Peterson’s chairmanship as he sought to wrap up the bill in 2011, citing budget issues as the main factor. But now, with Lucas spearheading the effort, it will go back to being the 2012 farm bill.

“The 2012 farm bill is what lies ahead of us that will come in my tenure as chairman,” Lucas says. “I live agriculture. That’s my background and my education, and I look forward to the opportunity and the challenges.”

Lucas further signals he’ll seek to keep direct payments intact as they are important to his Oklahoma constituents who measure topsoil in terms of “inches, not feet,” he notes.

The Environmental Working Group (EWG) called the elections a wake-up call for those defending farm subsidies and the 2008 farm bill. “Democratic incumbents’ support for outdated and expensive farm subsidies clearly wasn’t enough,” says Craig Cox, EWG senior vice president. “If anything, this is a wake-up call that there is a negligible political benefit to toeing the subsidy lobby’s line.”

Cap and trade. This controversial topic is not one that will be surfacing in Congress soon. Even President Obama, in his postelection news conference in which he called the results a “shellacking” for Democrats, said that “cap-and-trade was just one way of skinning the cat. It was a means, not an end. I’m going to be looking for other means to address this problem.”

Those “other means” could include the regulatory route, but Obama stressed that the Environmental Protection Agency would like to look to Congress for guidance on the issue.

They won’t have to look far. Newly elected Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.V.), who shot a bullet through climate change legislation in a campaign ad, says he has assurances from Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) that cap-and-trade legislation is dead. “I got his commitment that cap-and-trade will definitely not be on the agenda and won’t be on the agenda during the next Congress,” Manchin says. “I have a deep commitment and a personal commitment from him that cap-and-trade is dead.”

One thing is certain, the leadership shifts will ripple into farm country.

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