A look back at 2009 reminds me of that expression, worrying is like a rocking chair: it doesn’t get you anywhere but it gives you something to do. And so it was with the ambitious congressional agenda of last year — with a couple of very notable exceptions — we saw lots of activity, but few results.
We started last year — as we will likely start this year — combating the president’s agriculture budget that would have denied farm bill benefits to producers based on gross sales (Congress rejected that on a bipartisan and bicameral basis).
USA Rice and a large coalition of agriculture groups worked with our allies in Congress to protect the agriculture budget and also ensure full funding in the appropriations process for the key market development programs that our industry relies on — the Market Access Program and Foreign Market Development program.
The international community waddled through another year of World Trade Organization talks, which a farm journalist dubbed “GATT,” or General Agreement to Talk and Talk (which is eminently better than giving away the store).
One positive note on trade is the current effort to expand agricultural trade with Cuba. This year represents a unique opportunity to see some long overdue progress on this key issue. The U.S. rice industry could gain the most from these changes. USA Rice continues to lead efforts of agriculture groups working with Congress to remove restrictions on agricultural trade with Cuba.
In the House, the scene all year was whack-a-mole. House committees (usually Energy and Commerce) would push out a bill bad for agriculture and Chairman Collin Peterson, D-Minn., and Rep. Frank Lucas, R-Okla., with the help of moderate and conservative Democrats and Republicans, would whack it back down or at least spiff it up. Think climate change, food safety, chemical security, clean water, financial regulatory reform, and even heath care, where triage was performed to undo as much damage as possible before sending the bill to the Senate for more serious surgery… or to be euthanized.
Meanwhile, it was tougher for legislation to move through the Senate than for a camel to fit through the eye of a needle, with Republicans in near lock-step and conservative and moderate Democrats very skeptical.
Thus the mantra that largely prevailed in 2009 is likely to endure in 2010: if it isn’t health care, must-pass, or has near consensus, it isn’t likely to happen in the U.S. Senate.
Health care, regulatory reform, and perhaps food safety are today the only items measuring much of a pulse in that body. Climate change initiatives, which some thought had a head of steam, may be fighting a rear guard action this year as congressional efforts to block the Environmental Protection Agency from unilaterally acting to regulate greenhouse gases take shape.
On the administrative front, we made it through the year with no payment limitation bombshell for the 2010 crop year, though storm clouds still linger for 2011 and after. Besides payment limitations, the other bull’s-eye is on crop insurance, where the administration’s opening volley in negotiations with crop insurance companies is to siphon off $4 billion from the agriculture budget baseline. Some speculate that would be done to increase funding of child nutrition programs, legislation scheduled to be reauthorized this year.
If successful, the effects on crop insurance are uncertain at best. Moreover, less $4 billion, the lean budget may be even leaner come time to write the 2012 farm bill, since Peterson says he will write a flat budget bill. House hearings on the next farm bill begin this spring, meaning farm groups like USA Rice Federation — and opponents — will begin laying the groundwork for the next debate.
In other matters, some key players in Congress, led by Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman Blanche L. Lincoln, D-Ark., weighed in with the Supreme Court against the Sixth Circuit Court case on clean water and pesticide permitting issues. Lincoln continues to fight for ad hoc disaster assistance in response to last fall’s production losses that hit the Delta region and impacted rice, cotton, soybeans, and other crops. USA Rice has been working closely with Sens. Lincoln and Thad Cochran, R-Miss., and Reps. Marion Berry, D-Ark., and Travis Childers, D-Miss., to bring some disaster relief to those hardest hit.
A decision on what to do about the expiring Bush tax cuts will also be a political hot potato, particularly relative to the estate tax, where opinions on how to proceed range from extending 2009 rates and exemptions, to lowering the rate and increasing the exemption, as Lincoln and Republican Minority Whip Jon Kyl, R-Ariz., proposed early last year.
So, not much actually crossed the finish line in 2009, and with this year hosting a crucial mid-term election, you can bet that only the very fittest will cross in 2010.
When playing defense, the intractable situation is a good thing. But, when work needs to be done, such as the farm bill in 2012, the politically-charged and polarizing environment will pose its own set of challenges.
Despite the obstacles, it is our job to work in a bipartisan way to do what’s best for those who feed, clothe, and fuel a nation like no other in history. Working with our producer brethren from around the country and with our allies on Capitol Hill, we will not shrink from the challenges ahead and strongly representing the U.S. rice industry.
Reece Langley is vice president for government affairs for USA Rice Federation.