Editors note: AgWeb editors and readers have weighed in on the top stories of 2010 that will continue to be a major story in 2011. This is the first in a five-part series. (Read all of the major stories.)
The 112th Congress will begin in January with the focus expected to be squarely on addressing the rising tide of federal budget red ink. That focus was telegraphed well in advanced as many the Tea Party candidates in the November elections campaigned on that as their main focus -- cutting government spending.
Farm program spending is one area that will come into focus, despite the fact that the "farm" portion is a splinter of the spending block. Of the programs under the control of the House Ag Committee, the 10-year cost of the commodity portion amounts to 0.15% of the overall federal budget. Even nutrition programs which make up 75% of USDA spending amount to just 1.62% of the overall 10-year federal budget.
Not Just One Group. So what impact will the Tea Partiers have? "The Tea Party is not just one group, but their impact is clear," says Jim Wiesemeyer of Informa Economics. "They want to cut spending. Period. And Republicans and moderate Democrats who do not heed that charge could find Tea Party candidates against them if they are up for reelection in 2012 -- especially the primaries, where the Tea Party is most effective."
That definitely was the case in November 2010, as even though the Tea Party candidate in a given race may not have won, their focus on spending put the eventual winner on notice that they better be ready to get serious about reducing the federal budget deficit.
Will agriculture be spared despite the fact the spending amounts to so little of the overall federal budget? No. But where can lawmakers look? Of the House Ag Committee’s projected $924 billion, 10-year budget, nutrition programs account for 75.3%, crop insurance 9.0%, conservation programs 7.0%, commodity programs 6.9% and "other" at 1.7%.
Food and Nutrition. Focus on Clearly, nutrition is the largest component but will be the hardest to cut – not all that many lawmakers have farmers in their districts, but all have "eaters." And, after all, that could be a dicey argument for a lawmaker to put forward to reduce this benefit to families at a time when the U.S. economy is only starting to pull out of the recession. But, it is still the largest chunk of spending that lawmakers on the Ag panels have to work with.
Some suggest one option could be to shift eligibility requirements for the program to make sure that only those who truly need the benefits are receiving them. That could be "easier" than some think given that this could fall under the category of rooting out waste, fraud and abuse. That will be a tough "no" vote for a lawmaker to cast when put in that light.
Momentum is With Them. But the Tea Party is a force to be reckoned with says Randy Russell of the Washington consulting firm Russell and Baron. "People need to recognize this was a grass-roots effort that took ahold in a matter of less than 18 months," he notes. "They will be a force to be reckoned with. The types of Tea Party members elected are going to be members that won't be as interested in being career politicians, but rather to go about the business of reducing the deficit, cutting spending, keeping taxes under control and making sure the regulatory environment is kept in check. Frankly, it just might be the change Washington needed."
So as the 112th Congress gets set to kick into action, they have a tall order ahead of them. And it's one that will have lasting impacts for agriculture and a host of other U.S. government programs.