Ag committees could divide on party, payment limit lines

Democrats took control of the House and Senate by mixing their core vote of liberals, urbanites, African-Americans and union households with a “substantial chunk” of independents, Catholics, Hispanics and married moms.

The question now, according to an analysis prepared by the political action committee of a large farm organization: Can the Democratic campaign committees hold their majorities into the 2008 elections?

At the time of the analysis, the House had shifted from 232 Republicans/203 Democrats to 232 Democrats/198 Republicans, a gain of at least 29 seats. The Senate went from 55 Republicans/45 Democrats to 51 Democrats/49 Republicans, a gain of six seats for the Democrats.

“The electorate is still split, however, as evidenced by the fact that 23 House races were decided by 2 points or less,” the analysis says. “Holding their majorities could be a formidable challenge in the House where 67 percent of the districts they picked up are generally considered conservative districts.”

The author notes that Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, will chair the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry, and Rep. Collin Peterson, D-Minn., the House Agriculture Committee.

Harkin is a known commodity in that he chaired the Senate ag committee when the Democrats reclaimed control of the Senate in 2001 and 2002 after Vermont Sen. Jim Jeffords changed from Republican to independent.

Several senators who were active in that debate, including Democrats Kent Conrad of North Dakota, Pat Leahy of Vermont, Max Baucus of Montana and Blanche Lincoln of Arkansas and Republicans Thad Cochran of Mississippi and Pat Roberts of Kansas, remain on the committee.

The most visible Republican on the committee, Sen. Saxby Chambliss of Georgia, served on the House Agriculture Committee during the 2002 farm bill debate. Chairman of the Senate ag committee in the last Congress, Chambliss is now ranking minority member.

Sen. Harkin is a proponent of conservation and nutrition programs — he wrote the Conservation Security Program provisions in the 2002 farm bill. And, as a representative of Iowa, which leads the nation in ethanol plants, he is expected to champion more incentives for production and consumption of renewable fuels.

“Perhaps the most significant policy difference between Senators Harkin and Chambliss is their difference on payment limitations,” the analysis said. “Sen. Harkin has voted for more stringent limitations proposed by Iowa Republican Charles Grassley and others, while Sen. Chambliss has consistently opposed those and other policies designed to limit farm size.”

Rep. Peterson appears to be more pragmatic on payment limits, arguing that more stringent rules are a highly divisive issue and makes development of effective farm policy more difficult. He also has introduced legislation to extend the current farm bill one to two years if no progress is made on the WTO's Doha negotiations.

As the analysis concludes, successful farm policy has always been a bipartisan effort. Row crop organizations had better be digging out all the bipartisanship they can find for the coming debate.

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