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Agriculture policy looks to change under the new Congress

by Joan Murphy | November 02, 2010
Republican control of the House of Representatives is likely to have a major impact on agriculture policy as 15 out of 28 Democrats lost their seats on the House Agriculture Committee on election night, according to Robert Guenther, senior vice president of public policy for the United Fresh Produce Association.

The Nov. 2 election means that House leadership begins the task of picking new chairmen for every House committee, which may not be sorted out until February. There was a net gain of 60 seats for Republicans in Congress, and 100 new members will join the ranks on Capitol Hill for the first time.

Rep. Frank Lucas (R-OK) is likely to become chairman of the powerful House Agriculture Committee and become more aggressive in overseeing programs at the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. The new voices in the halls of Congress will put more pressure on Congress to reduced spending on all programs, including agriculture, sources said.

Unlike Chairman Collin Peterson (D-MN), Rep. Lucas has been quoted as saying that he does not favor tackling the 2012 farm bill next year. "I don't think slowing down the farm bill is necessarily a bad thing," Mr. Guenther told The Produce News, predicting that pressure to cut spending under the new Congress will be focused on commodity crops. "We have a better argument not for subsidies but to invest in specialty crops" to make businesses grow, he said.

Democrats such as Jim Marshall (D-GA), Earl Pomeroy (D-NC) and Frank Kratovil (D-MD) lost their seats on the House Agriculture Committee. Results from Rep. Jim Costa's (D-CA) re-election bid had yet to be settled as of Wednesday, Nov. 3.

On the Senate side, Sen. Blanche Lincoln (D-AR) was defeated, and her successor as chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee could be either Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-MI) or Sen. Kent Conrad (D-ND). If Sen. Stabenow ascends to the post, "That's an important step up for us," Mr. Guenther said, referring to the Michigan senator's leadership on specialty crop issues.

The election may not have a direct impact on food-safety legislation.

Food-safety legislation is still in the hands of the current Congress during the lame duck session, and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) has pledged to schedule a cloture vote Nov. 17 to move the bill to the Senate floor. Still, the path for final food-safety legislation is anything but certain, and United Fresh said that it will pull support for any bill that includes an amendment to exempt small producers from the produce safety requirements.

In the meantime, United said that it will begin reaching out to new members in the coming days to poll their views on immigration reform, nutrition, food safety and agricultural policy.