Election shuffles congressional ag committees
Stabenow, Lucas likely new chairs for Senate, House panels
By JERRY HAGSTROM
For the Capital Press
WASHINGTON, D.C. -- The 2010 congressional elections will lead to dramatic changes in the leadership and membership of the House and Senate agriculture committees and may delay consideration of the 2012 Farm Bill.
The Republican takeover in the House will transfer chairmanship of the House Agriculture Committee from Collin Peterson, D-Minn., to Frank Lucas, R-Okla. The defeat of Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman Blanche Lincoln, D-Ark., will probably transfer the chairmanship of that committee to Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich.
If Rep. Jim Costa, D-Calif., loses his seat, which was too close to call at press time, the committee will lose of a key legislator, particularly on issues of fruits, vegetables and food safety.
Freshman Rep. Walt Minnick, D-Idaho, lost his re-election bid.
California Democratic Reps. Joe Baca and Dennis Cardoza and Oregon Rep. Kurt Schrader survived the Republican onslaught.
Noting that many members of his committee had lost, Peterson said that they did not "solidify" their positions in their districts. Even though the Democratic Congress passed the 2008 Farm Bill, one of the most popular in history, over President George W. Bush's veto, Peterson said the Democrats did not get credit for it.
"Farmers vote Democratic when times are bad, Republican when times are good," he said.
"After serving on the House Agriculture Committee for 16 years, the last two as ranking member, and through the reauthorization of three major farm bills, I hope in the new Republican majority of the next Congress I will have the chance to lead the committee as we focus on the needs of agriculture and rural America," Lucas said in a press statement.
During the campaign, Lucas frequently criticized the Environmental Protection Agency's actions, but he has rarely been in open conflict with Peterson over agriculture policy.
However, while Peterson has been encouraging House members and farmers to think about using the $5 billion in direct payments for other purposes, Lucas has defended them.
Peterson said in a Nov. 3 interview he would not fight sentiment to keep the direct payments. But he also said that the tea party movement's push to control the budget would make it difficult to start new farm programs and continue some programs that are already in existence.
Lincoln has defended big cotton and rice subsidies, but if Stabenow becomes chairman she will be more likely to place a priority on fruits and vegetables, sugar beets and the animal agriculture that are more important to Western states.
Senate Budget Committee Chairman Kent Conrad, D-N.D., ranks higher than Stabenow on the agricultural committee and is coming under some pressure from farm groups to take the Agriculture chairmanship, but he has previously said he can do more for agriculture and other interests in North Dakota by staying put.
Conrad also wants to reduce the federal deficit, and the new political climate might create conditions for him to play a major leadership role in that area while still protecting the budget for agriculture.
Stabenow said in a statement from her office in Detroit that she was "saddened" by Lincoln's loss, but noted that she has long taken an interest in agriculture and that she is "ready once again to advocate for and strengthen this critical part of our economy for Michigan and our country."
"As Michigan's second largest industry, agriculture is critical to our economy and employs thousands of people," Stabenow said. "Michigan is second only to California in our agricultural diversity, including our leadership in the production of many fruits and vegetables."
A Conrad spokeswoman said he would not make a decision until he has consulted with North Dakota leaders about which position he should hold.
Meanwhile, Congress is scheduled to return to Washington on Nov. 15 for a lame-duck session that could see action on reauthorization of child nutrition programs, a food-safety bill and an extension of tax credits and a protective tariff for ethanol.
Peterson said that in light of the elections, he does not think that Congress should pass the Senate child nutrition bill because it includes an increase in spending for the school lunch program using budget authority from a reduction in food stamp benefits.
Peterson said he believes the current programs should be extended, but added that he would support provisions that would not allow school lunches or the food stamp program to buy foods that contain "empty calories."
The child nutrition program budget increase would allow the purchase of more fruits and vegetables, whole grain foods and lowfat dairy and meat products.
Peterson also said the ethanol tax credits and a protective tariff should be extended in the lame-duck session so they do not expire at the end of the year. He said he would not vote for any tax-extending bill that does not include those provisions.