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Ag groups: turnover in Congress requires major education effort

Ag groups: turnover in Congress requires major education effort

Turnover in Congress means ramped up educational efforts by agriculture groups and advocates. Sources believe Republicans have the best chance of taking back the House.

Few would be taken aback if the coming elections usher in a massive new class to Congress. A hefty turnover certainly won’t surprise a handful of veteran, congressional liaisons from major commodity and farm groups that Farm Press has spoken with.

The House

All believe the chance of Republicans wresting control from Democrats is greatest in the House. If that happens, it’s expected that Oklahoma Rep. Frank Lucas will take the House Agriculture Committee chairmanship from Minnesota Rep. Collin Peterson.

“I think the two of them will continue to work pretty closely together,” says a D.C.-based source. “They have under the current arrangement. The big difference, I think, would be relative to the farm bill. The schedule for doing the next farm bill under Lucas would be much later.”

As chairman, Peterson has pushed to start the farm bill process early, aiming for the bill to largely be written in 2011. Observers speculate that Lucas would prefer to focus on oversight issues – reining in the EPA and checking into several controversial USDA programs -- in 2011 before getting to the meat of the next farm bill in 2012.

Looking at the current House Agriculture Committee roster, many of the members up for reelection – particularly Democrats -- are in tough battles. Some, perhaps many, are unlikely to return to Congress meaning new members for the committee.

If Republicans take the House, new committee slots will open up for the party. In that case, Lucas would face the difficulty of writing a new farm bill with members trying to find their feet.

Another pressing factor is uncertainty over the budget. Will there be an effort to pass a budget reconciliation bill next year? If so, how might that impact the writing of the next farm bill?

Sources – willing to speak on their work only if left unidentified -- say there is much speculation on whether a truly robust reconciliation bill will be offered. Will significant cuts be made across the board and how best for agriculture interests to strategize?

The liaisons suggest it might be better for agriculture, as part of that reconciliation effort, to try and extend the authorization for the current farm bill programs. Otherwise, there could be cuts in 2011 followed by writing a new farm bill in 2012 – a scenario that could open agriculture up to even more budget cuts.

Also possible: a combined process if budget reconciliation takes off in 2011.

“Of course, that’s an unknown, right now,” says another source. “If Republicans control the House and Democrats remain in control of the Senate, I don’t know if they’ll ever be able to get together on a budget-cutting bill.”

The Senate

While the Senate is less likely to go to the Republicans, polls suggest Arkansas Sen. Blanche Lincoln, the current chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee will lose. If those polls are correct and Democrats keep the Senate, observers expect the chairmanship will shift from the South to Michigan Sen. Debbie Stabenow or Nebraska Sen. Ben Nelson. There is also speculation that North Dakota Sen. Kent Conrad could give up his seat on the Budget Committee to helm agriculture.

If the Republicans take the Senate, Georgia Sen. Saxby Chambliss will likely become chairman.

Whatever happens, the liaisons say educating incoming legislators -- committee members, or not – is vital.

“It’s a process of education, even in the case of someone on the committee who goes from the minority to the majority, let alone coming into Congress for the first time,” says a representative of a commodity organization. “You have to help them understand how a farm bill works, why it’s important to their state and make them aware of the nuances.

“There’s a lot of turnover in Congress, despite what people commonly think. If you’re doing a farm bill every four or five years, you can run out of expertise really quickly.”

Consider this: since the 2002 farm bill there have been 46 members on the Senate Agriculture Committee. Thirty-five of them were elected to Congress since 2002. So, at most, those 35 could have worked on only one farm bill in 2008. There’s little continuity.

To get legislators up to speed on agriculture – why the farm bill is important, why direct payments shouldn’t be changed, what the SURE program is about, on and on – is very difficult.

One source says it usually takes six months before a lawmaker and their staff is sufficiently prepped. “It takes time for them to get office space sorted, get staffed up, and then accommodate us a few times over the course of a few months.”

Facing that reality, several said they have already been preparing and updating educational materials.

Generally, lawmakers stick together on economic issues important to their state. Often, that trumps party affiliation. And since that’s the case, the agriculture organizations are especially keen to bend the ear of each state’s leading farm-friendly legislator. Get in good with that lawmaker, make sure they understand agriculture issues, and they will play the role of bell-cow.

Those inexperienced with farm issues “look to someone from their delegation, maybe someone from a rural district, who has been through ag issues before and they’ll watch what they do. If you’re from (an urban area) and you aren’t familiar with agriculture, you’ll probably look to a legislator from an area in your state where there’s a lot of agriculture. If you know someone is a delegation leader in agriculture and you’re able to convince them to lean a certain way, they’ll be able to influence their colleagues.”


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