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INDUSTRY VIEWPOINT: The new Washington

When the new president and new Congress take their oaths of office this month, they will be confronted by an economic crisis unrivaled since the Great Depression as well as high-priority issues including war, health-care reform and global warming.

Given the gravity of these enormous issues that cut through all sectors, what can we expect on produce industry issues such as food safety, nutrition and immigration?

It takes any president some time to assemble a complement of political appointees. The Senate hopes to confirm most of Barack Obama's Cabinet by the time of his swearing-in ceremony. Tom Daschle, who will oversee the Food & Drug Administration as the secretary of health and human services, will be the first Cabinet secretary in memory to have a White House office. Mr. Daschle has grounding in agricultural issues from his farm-state background and longtime service on the Senate Agriculture Committee. We expect this may bring greater collaboration with Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack on issues such as childhood obesity and federal feeding programs.

Meanwhile, lesser offices may go unfilled for some time. In each of the last three administrations, it took until around September for an administrator of the Agricultural Marketing Service to be put in place at the U.S. Department of Agriculture. As the process of appointments stretches on, career employees and others will fill the gaps so that the business of government can continue.

Every new administration wants to leave its mark on matters of both policy and management. Compounding this natural tendency is that the Obama presidency was born from a promise of change and confronting huge challenges. That suggests we will see an activist mood from his administration to address issues and press the bounds of existing governmental powers.

For example, some members of Congress criticized the Bush administration for a careful reading of its legal ability to extend FDA's food-safety reach absent new legislation. While an Obama FDA commissioner has not yet been named, the new administration will likely take a more aggressive reading of the Food, Drug & Cosmetic Act to mandate by regulation what the Bush administration said only Congress could require.

Meanwhile, Congress' agenda is also brimming. The financial meltdown has elbowed financial issues to the top of its to-do list. Other issues, such as health care and global warming, joined that list by virtue of their prominence in the recent elections. This does not mean that key produce issues (such as food safety and immigration) will be crowded out. Indeed, in some ways, a crowded schedule plus an active and energetic Congress make it more - not less - likely that it will take on additional issues, though the issue will then be timing.

The future of food-safety legislation, once seen as a virtual certainty in this Congress, has become more clouded. In December, Rep. Henry Waxman (D- CA) became chairman of the powerful Energy & Commerce Committee. While the committee's previous leader, John Dingell (D-MI), had circulated draft reforms to FDA's food-safety program, we do not know where this issue ranks among Chairman Waxman's priorities. Nor is it clear how, if at all, he may differ from Mr. Dingell on this issue.

We do not expect a wholesale change in the committee's direction, however. After all, Mr. Waxman recently named Mr. Dingell to lead the committee's efforts on health care reform.

Given its massive priorities, it is not known when the House will get to food- safety legislation - or the Senate, either. The Senate Health Committee, which Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-MA) chairs, will focus first on health care. Although Sen. Richard Durbin (D-IL) plans to reintroduce last year's bipartisan food- safety bill, even he recently acknowledged that food safety "is an issue that will have to wait its turn" in light of other priorities.

We do not think Congress will ignore the issue, however. Nor do we expect Congress will ignore the issue of immigration. In many ways, the chance of passing immigration reform is better now than a year ago. Its potency as a wedge issue has diminished post election, and Mr. Obama has spoken in favor of reform. Still, other issues such as the economic recovery will come first, and proponents must juggle the issue of whether relief should be in the form of a comprehensive package or one specific to agriculture.

It looks as if it may be a historic year, with changes coming from both legislative and executive branches that will impact the produce industry, which will need to be ready to aggressively press its agenda to ensure that we get what we need for our future in the process.

(Tom O'Brien is the Washington, DC, representative for the Produce Marketing Association. He specializes in agricultural regulatory issues. He is a former AMS associate administrator and was deputy director of the Washington, DC, office of California Gov. Gray Davis. He also previously served in the Office of White House Counsel.)