Farm Bureau's Bob Stallman: turning voter anger into policy will challenge GOP

By James C. Webster

© Copyright Agri-Pulse Communications, Inc.

Washington, Nov. 5 - Republican control of the House next year will boost the odds of approving trade agreements and enhance the chances of relief from capital gains and estate taxes, says American Farm Bureau Federation President Bob Stallman, but the outlook for farm program spending is less clear.

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“The members will have to assess what the vote meant,” he told reporters at a luncheon at AFBF's Washington office Thursday. Even among candidates who won with Tea Party support, “we never saw much in the way of policy proposals” about specific budget cuts, he said. “Now they will have to translate that angst into policy positions, and that may be difficult.”

Stallman does not think that Obama administration farm policy played much of a role in the election. Asked whether Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack's emphasis on nutrition and his “know your farmer” initiatives could have been a drag on rural Democrats, he said, “I seriously doubt that USDA or Vilsack had a lot of impact.” While some farmers and ranchers would prefer that USDA focus on commercial agriculture, Stallman said, “the reality is that USDA's mission is broader.” He pointed out that Vilsack says often that “we need all of production agriculture.”

Congress will write the next farm bill under “more budget pressure than any farm bill I've witnessed,” Stallman says, beginning with his experience as a farmer in Texas when the 1977 farm bill eliminated rice production quotas. “Farm programs are always a big target, especially in an era of tight budgets.” The farm bill will be taken up by “a whole bunch of new members and staff,” he adds. The House Agriculture Committee will have “a huge hole” to fill with new Democratic members because “a lot of rural Blue Dogs will no longer be there.” With the ranks of rural Democrats depleted, Stallman will be “interested to see where the Democrats get new members” for the panel and whether they would have more environmental or nutrition focus.

Although prospective House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) “in the past has not been favorably disposed” to farm bills, Stallman is not concerned that Boehner will target farm programs as speaker. “Being speaker is different than voting as an individual member,” Stallman says, because he will have to be sensitive to the political imperatives of rural members of his caucus.

“The farm bill is our major focus,” he said, but Farm Bureau will support efforts to “postpone or roll back” Environmental Protection Agency regulation of greenhouse gases and have a greater opportunity to stop water legislation that would give agriculture “a disproportionate burden.”

On international trade policy, “the environment will be much better in the new Congress,” he says. “I see opportunities for enhancement of chances of the bilateral agreements with South Korea, Colombia and Panama, but I doubt that it will make much difference for the WTO” - the Doha Round negotiations for a new World Trade Organization agreement. However, prospects for relaxation of U.S. restrictions on trade with Cuba “become more difficult” if Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL) becomes chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee.

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