What the Elections Mean to Ag

December 12, 2008 06:00 PM
Coffee-shop talk centering on the November elections hasn't simmered much these days. Now that we know the answer to the who question, the what, when, why and how are yet to be determined. For the first time since 1994, Democrats have control of the White House, Senate and U.S. House of Representatives. In the latter two, their margin of control is stronger compared with their 2006 share.

Also significant about the Nov. 4, 2008, elections are their similarities to the 1964 vote:
¡ President-elect Barack Obama captured 52% of the popular vote, the most for a Democrat since 1964.
¡ Virginia and Indiana backed a Democrat for President for the first time since 1964.
¡ The last time a senator from Arizona won his party's primaries was Barry Goldwater (R) in 1964.

In addition to the usual red versus blue states, the electoral map provides a means to dissect the results. Republicans still fare well in the South and in many western states. The number of southern states, however, that backed Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) prompts the question of whether the party's political clout is waning.

Agriculture's vote was a factor. While McCain outpolled Obama in rural areas, his margin of victory was only 4% compared with 17% for President George W. Bush in 2004. Some chalk up that narrower margin of support to the stance McCain took against ethanol and farm subsidies. "It seemed like he went out of his way to single out agriculture,” says Jim Wiesemeyer of Informa Economics. The bottom line is that the Democratic party is gaining popularity in rural areas.

Younger voters and new voters also supported Obama, with 66% of those ages 18 to 29 voting for him along with 68% of first-time voters.

As for the impact of Obama's presidency, that depends on which Obama takes office: the politician we saw on the campaign trail or the pragmatist that he has shown he can be. That's going to be the critical factor.

Senate results. Democrats managed to pick up seven seats that were formerly Republican-held (North Carolina, Virginia, Oregon, New Mexico, Colorado, New Hampshire and Alaska). The last one took until mid-November to be decided as Anchorage Mayor Mark Begich (D) surged ahead of Ted Stevens, the longest-serving Republican in the Senate, by 3,700 votes with 2,500 still to count.

At press time, there are still races to be decided—and both have an ag connection. The Georgia race is tapped to be decided Dec. 2 in a runoff election; Senate Ag Committee ranking member Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.) came up less than half a percent short of the threshold (50% of the vote) needed to win outright.

In Minnesota, a recount is under way as Sen. Norm Coleman (R) is about 200 votes ahead of Al Franken (D) in the initial results. Recount procedures are set to have that contest decided sometime this month.

If the Democrats don't take both seats, it will leave them tantalizingly close to the 60-vote mark needed to end filibusters—and will spur an intense Democratic focus toward the moderate Republicans to get them to the 60-vote mark if needed—namely, Sens. Arlen Specter (Pa.), Olympia Snowe (Maine) and Susan Collins (Maine). The latter two are often referred to in Washington policy circles as RINOs—Republicans in Name Only!

House margin widens for Democrats. Democrats added at least 21 seats to their majority in the House when the election results were tallied. However, not all Democrats fared well; three Democratic freshmen members of the House Ag Committee were defeated: Reps. Nancy Boyda (Kan.), Nick Lampson (Texas) and Tim Mahoney (Fla.). Four Republicans on the House Ag Committee were removed: Reps. Marilyn Musgrave (Colo.), Randy Kuhl (N.Y.), Tim Walberg (Mich.) and, the most-senior Republican on the panel who was defeated, Rep. Robin Hayes (N.C.).
Increased Democratic margins in both chambers mean more power for Democratic leaders. They will also increase the ratio of Democrats to Republicans on committees—more Democratic seats and fewer Republican seats, as well as fewer staff members on the minority side of the aisle.

Democrats are now the center of attention—and the top-of-mind question is how they will use their new-found power in Washington. Will they overreach? Will they push too many issues that mainstream voters are uncomfortable with? If so, that will put an intense focus on the 2010 and 2012 elections.

Impacts for agriculture. First on the watch list is who will end up in the various Cabinet and sub-Cabinet posts, such as USDA, the Environmental Protection Agency, Department of Energy and Department of Justice.

For USDA, the key issues will be continuing to implement the 2008 farm bill, which will focus on any "leftover” decisions from the Bush administration, possibly the Average Crop Revenue Election (ACRE) program and others.

The sticky issue of what constitutes "actively engaged” in farming is also expected to surface with the new administration; it has been two decades since the issue was touched by an administration. Key background on this issue: Obama backed an unsuccessful farm bill amendment to require a farmer to both physically work the land and manage it to qualify for benefits. The current definition says a farmer must either work the land or manage it.

Congressional issues. Already, lawmakers, such as Senate Ag Committee Chairman Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), are signaling they'll focus on regulating the futures market as the new Congress takes over. Plus, they'll continue to oversee USDA's implementation of the 2008 farm bill.

House Ag Committee Chairman Collin Peterson (D-Minn.) started to talk about reorganizing USDA before the ink was barely dry on the farm bill, so that will be a top priority as his panel starts its work in 2009.

Of course, at the top of the list will be assessing the financial crisis gripping the country. Economic stimulus plans are taking shape, and it will be interesting to see how "loaded up” those must-pass pieces of legislation will be once they get to their final form. Agriculture interests will have some pet projects inserted into any stimulus plan.

As for budget cuts, those will still come. But with the focus in Washington on keeping the economy from slipping deep into a recession, even President-elect Obama says focusing on the deficit isn't warranted in the short term. With the red ink forecasted to be $750 billion to $1 trillion for the current fiscal year, that will mean cuts in government, which will include agriculture.

You can e-mail Roger Bernard at

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