Closer together or farther apart?

By Bruce Knight

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While some questions remain, Tuesday's election made it clear that both the Senate and the House will be firmly in the hands of Republicans when the next Congress is seated in January 2015. Will this mean improved cooperation or increased polarization between a Democratic President and a united Republican legislature? And what changes can agriculture expect? 

In exit interviews and anecdotal conversations, the American people have stated clearly that they want their elected representatives and their President to work together to get things done. They expressed their resounding dissatisfaction with both political parties' contributions to the governmental gridlock that too closely mirrors the traffic tie-ups on the capitol's crowded highways and streets. 

Moving forward must mean an increased willingness to compromise, to serve national rather than narrow interests, to find areas of agreement, to govern jointly rather than by passing partisan bills or issuing executive orders. In fact, we may get a fair idea of how the President intends to work with the new Congress in the way the remaining appropriations bills move through the pipeline this fall, while Democrats still hold the majority in the Senate.

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During the final two years of President Clinton's administration, we saw him shift his policies more towards the center, which made compromise possible. In contrast, President Obama has moved increasingly leftward since his re-election in 2012. Will he now make a similar move toward the majority of Americans who label themselves moderates? I am hopeful he will see the wisdom in this strategy even though yesterday's Washington Post reports that the President's aides declared he “plans to assert his veto power on issues he feels strongly about, such as Obamacare.” However, the Post also reported he'd only used that veto twice thus far during his presidency.

Of course, one of the bright spots of collaboration during the past 20 years of increasing polarization has been agriculture. While other legislation remained stalled in controversy or dead on arrival at one or the other side of the Capitol, farm bills have been eventually cobbled together through the hard work of legislators from both sides of the aisle.

No major pieces of legislation affecting agriculture are pending, but future appropriations bills will likely contain more restrictions on spending. We'll have new committee chairs as re-elected Senator Pat Roberts indicated he expects to head the Senate Ag Committee and Representative Frank Lucas reaches the end of his six-year term limit as House Ag chair when the current Congress is replaced.

What lies ahead? I think we'll see more oversight hearings on the implementation of the current farm bill.  There will be more tough questions for USDA agency heads about their management of programs and stewardship of resources. This is not about controversies in the law but about how rapidly and effectively 2014 Farm Bill programs are being implemented.

If EPA does not make the smart move and withdraw, reform or delay its “waters of the U.S.” rule, I think there will be brutal oversight hearings on that.  Insistence upon maintaining that rule as is could easily lead to appropriations riders prohibiting enforcement of it. 

We could also see a review of country of origin labeling. After the World Trade Organization called the COOL rule discriminatory against imports from Canada and Mexico, USDA published a revised rule, which WTO said did not solve the problem but actually made it worse. Much of agriculture would also like to see that rule reformed to avoid trade sanctions. The Administration is leaning toward appealing the WTO ruling, but it's possible the new Congress will get involved as well.

One positive note is that trade agreements may move more swiftly through Congress, benefiting agriculture by opening or expanding markets in the Pacific Rim and Europe. That's good news.

More than any other time during the 30 years I've been involved in agricultural policy work, I believe we are entering an era where farmers will be increasingly responding to market forces rather than government programs or regulations. The risks and opportunities producers will be facing will focus primarily on developing new markets and new products. Unimpeded by trade barriers, American agriculture will prove competitive in the world marketplace, and consumers here and abroad will reap the benefits.

Change is on the horizon. The American people have made their choices. But only if our legislators and our President choose to engage honestly and find areas of agreement can we pull together rather than let our differences push us farther apart. 

About the author: Bruce I. Knight, Principal, Strategic Conservation Solutions, was the Under Secretary for Marketing and Regulatory Programs at the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) from 2006 to 2009. From 2002 to 2006, Knight served as Chief of Natural Resources Conservation Service. The South Dakota native worked on Capitol Hill for Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole, Rep. Fred Grandy, Iowa, and Sen. James Abdnor, South Dakota. In addition, Knight served as vice president for public policy for the National Corn Growers Association and also worked for the National Association of Wheat Growers. A third-generation rancher and farmer and lifelong conservationist, Knight operates a diversified grain and cattle operation using no-till and rest rotation grazing systems

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