What new faces in Congress means for agriculture

Heather Hamilton
for Tri-State Livestock News

What changed in the Congress as a result of the election? Farm Bureau Federation Senior Director of Congressional Relations Mary Kay Thatcher explained potentially serious impacts from the election as a result of the new faces in Washington D.C. at Wyoming Farm Bureau’s 93rd Annual Meeting in Laramie, WY, in mid-November.

“The American public said they liked having a division of our government, and they did indeed vote to keep the status quo – to keep the President, the Republican controlled House and the Democratic controlled Senate. If there is good news, that’s probably the good news,” explained Thatcher, noting that division of government maintains a greater degree of transparency to the public.

However, in the next breath, Thatcher added that while control remained the same, the new faces within the House and Senate may make a significant impact on agriculture as time moves forward.

“If you look at the Senate, there are going to be quite a few changes, but it’s primarily because of retirements. Only two members of the Senate were defeated. When you look at what’s happening in the House of Representatives, we are going to have a lot of new members to educate. We’re going to have at least 80 new members of Congress this year, and 39 percent of the House of Representatives will have less than three years’ experience when they come in on the third of January,” stated Thatcher of the high percentage of Congress members that will need to be educated on the numerous issues within the agriculture sector.

Another Congressional concern is that while the numbers of Republican and Democratic seats didn’t change very much, the individuals, and their personal viewpoints, did change within those seats.

“We’re going to have a much different Congress. For the first time in history, the Democratic caucus in the House will be made up a majority of either women or minorities. We added a significant number of Latinos, Asian Americans, Blacks, etc… Now, that’s not the bad news, the bad news is we’ve become a whole lot more polarized. We traded people who were in the middle and got people who ran on being very, very liberal,” noted Thatcher.

Among those retiring members were several from the “Blue Dog” group, which is a conservative Democratic group that typically stays in the middle, and which were historically largely elected from agriculture districts. In 2009 and 2010, 54 members of the 435 in Congress, or about one in nine, were members of the Blue Dog Coalition. Twenty of those 54 members were on the House Ag Committee, and their numbers were such that they were able to get some political sway on issues. The recent election reduced Blue Dog members for the second time in a row, down to 12 members, which in Thatcher’s opinion will result in a much more polarized Congress, making the passing of bills even more difficult than in recent history.

“When we hear about the effect of the Latino vote in the last election, one thing that may be a positive off-spin is there may be more attention on really doing something about immigration reform than there has been before. When we take into account the non-Hispanic population over the next 40 years, it will climb 50 million or so. But, if you look at what is going to happen within the Hispanic population: it’s going to almost triple in the next 40 years. When you think about that for us, it’s going to mean a different way of thinking about things, and we’re going to have to restructure how we go to Congress and lobby those members. How do we work with some of these people that we have never been able to work with before?” asked Thatcher of an impending issue that will face agriculture lobbyists in Washington D.C. as the face of Congress continues to change over time.

Congressional members are also currently working to get on their committees of choice. Some new members were promised committee seats during the election, and if those promises are fulfilled, older members will be bumped to different committees, creating a domino effect. This all takes time, as does replacing and moving the multiple Republican members who will term-off their current committees at the end of the year.

“Sometime in the mid-1990s, Republicans decided to impose term limits on themselves. They’re slightly different, but generally speaking they say you can either be chairman of a committee for six years or you can be a ranking member of a committee for six years. But, once your six years are up, you have to get off and let somebody else have a chance. So, this year, incredibly, we only have 16 committees in the Senate, and nine of the ranking member spots have to be rotated, and seven of those nine are due to Republicans reaching their term limits,” explained Thatcher.

As Congress finishes out the year, Thatcher said she doesn’t expect much action.

“I think the Lame Duck will be lame. This is the least productive Congress we’ve had in a very long time, maybe the least productive Congress ever. Now, you can look at that as the glass is half full and at least they’re not doing anything to us, and that’s true. But, they’re not really doing a whole lot in general either. My assumption is if they weren’t productive the first 22 months of their term, they’re really not going to be productive the last two months either,” she concluded on what is likely to occur in the last two weeks of the year.