Next Congress will have a new look
A shift in the balance of power is set to take place in the U.S. Congress as Democrats take control of the House of Representatives and the Senate following the Nov. 7 election.
California farmers and ranchers are hopeful that the nation's newly elected congressional leaders will work with agriculture on issues important to protecting the nation's food supply such as immigration reform, estate tax, environmental issues, trade and the Farm Bill.
"We will work to make sure the new Congress represents the best interests of our nation's farmers. Farm Bureau has strong relationships with friends on both sides of the aisle who understand the importance of California farms and ranches," said California Farm Bureau President Doug Mosebar. "There are important decisions to be made on fiscal matters, immigration policy, the death tax and many other issues, so we will work to find areas of common interest. We expect the new Congress will act to maintain the strength of American agriculture."
The changing political structure in Washington could offer Farm Bureau new opportunities for progress on policy issues important to California farmers, such as immigration reform.
"This is our opportunity to work with the new Congress, to make changes and hopefully get to a new, reformed temporary worker program," said Jack King, manager of the CFBF National Affairs Division. "I think that the new Congress will recognize that the current system is broken and must be fixed. We expect an honest and full debate on this issue, hopefully with some resolution on this issue next year."
Roy Gabriel, CFBF director of labor affairs, indicated that the new leadership in Congress is committed to bringing the issue of immigration reform to the floor; however, there is a window of opportunity to make progress during the "lame duck" session in December.
"We are going to make our best effort with help from Senators Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and Larry Craig (R-Idaho) to try to get our temporary worker component—AgJOBS—language enacted during the lame duck session," Gabriel said.
California farmers, such as the North Coast pear growers who this year experienced crop losses because of a shortage of workers, cannot afford another season without a reliable supply of workers. That is why it is crucial that Congress act now to solve the problem, Gabriel said.
"If the 109th Congress passed the bill tomorrow, it would take a year for it to be fully implemented. If we have to wait through the 110th Congress, it is going to be 2008 before it could be actually put into effect and implemented," Gabriel said. "We've been fighting this effort for the last 25 years to get a meaningful, flexible program enacted. We need to fix the problem now."
Karen Ross, California Association of Winegrape Growers president, said she believes that the likelihood of passing a comprehensive immigration reform package has a better shot now than it did prior to the election.
"We had very strong bipartisan support on the immigration measures that agriculture was supporting. It is just that the Republican leadership kept it from going to conference committee and they made it a political issue and it should not be that way," Ross said. "We need to look at what is right for our economy and what is right for the nation."
A change in congressional leadership, King said, means there will be a different approach to tax matters. It is the hope of the Farm Bureau that the next Congress continues tax policies that maintain a strong economy. That includes dealing with estate tax reform.
"Certainly the approach to estate tax changes with the new congressional leadership. This presents both challenges and opportunities for California agriculture," King said. "Democrats and Republicans recognize the need to deal with the 2011 sunset on the current treatment of estate taxes. We expect the Democratic leadership to deal with our concerns."
Related to global trade, some analysts say that a Democrat-led Congress will re-ignite the World Trade Organization talks but could take a new direction than the previous leadership on trade agreements.
"The change in leadership I think puts a cloud on future trade negotiations and puts in doubt whether Congress will extend the president's authority to enter into trade negotiations beyond next year," said Rayne Thompson, CFBF director of international trade. "That leaves the world trade talks in limbo."
The incoming congressional leaders will set priorities for the nation's future agricultural policy with the current Farm Bill legislation set to expire in 2007. In the past year, U.S. Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns toured the nation. A.G. Kawamura, secretary of the California Department of Food and Agriculture, traveled throughout the state asking for input on what people would like to see in the next Farm Bill.
"Farm Bill legislation is still a pretty bipartisan effort but it does change some of the priorities within the Farm Bill, certainly with the Senate going Democratic. Changes in leadership will likely lead to changes in priorities," King said. "I think we can safely say there will be more emphasis on conservation, energy and research."
Representing California cotton growers, Calcot director of communications Mark Bagby said he is optimistic about the change in leadership and expects farmers to benefit from a bipartisan approach.
"The likely chair of the House Ag Committee, Collin Peterson (D-Min.), was a pretty strong advocate of the provisions of the 2002 Farm Bill and Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), who is the likely new chair of the Senate Ag Committee, was the chair of the committee when the 2002 Farm Bill was passed, so we are optimistic," Bagby said. "Nobody likes gridlock. We seem to come out with better legislation when everybody is at the table."
As a result of the recent election, a longtime friend of agriculture, Rep. Richard Pombo, R-Tracy, suffered defeat after losing to Democrat Jerry McNerney, a wind energy consultant from Pleasanton. A champion of private property rights and proponent of modernizing the Endangered Species Act, Pombo was a seven-term incumbent and chairman of the House Resources Committee.
"Richard Pombo's loss is a loss for all California farmers and ranchers," Mosebar said. "We will work to educate the new Congress about the need to modernize the Endangered Species Act and achieve balanced use of our natural resources."
Pombo led House passage of the Threatened and Endangered Species Recovery Act of 2005, to update and improve endangered-species laws. In a bipartisan approach, 408 House members voted to change the act, specifically to do away with critical habitat designations.
"What is lost in the outcome of the Pombo race is a wealth of understanding about how the ESA could be improved to better recover species and enlist the crucial aid of farmers and ranchers in this process," said Brenda Washington Davis, managing counsel for the CFBF Natural Resources and Environmental Division. "The Pombo defeat lessens the opportunities for us to get legislative changes, but we still will look for opportunities for as many common sense changes as possible."
Following the Nov. 7 election, Democrats took control of the U.S. House of Representatives by picking up 28 GOP-held seats. In the Senate, Democrats won a 51st seat and regained control of Congress.
While the make-up of Congress may have changed, Farm Bureau leaders say policy objectives for the state's largest farm organization remain unchanged. Farm Bureau will develop new strategies to further those objectives.
Kenny Watkins, CFBF second vice president, said California farmers and ranchers have to remain optimistic and adapt to the new congressional leadership.
"We are going to have to spend some time in Washington, D.C., and develop new relationships and enhance some relationships that we already have," Watkins said. "We must form those relationships and build trust so that we can accomplish our goals for agriculture."
(Christine Souza is a reporter for Ag Alert. She may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.)
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