The most important question in Washington this year is the obvious one: Who will win the presidency on November 6, 2012?
The overwhelming focus on presidential politics this year will make all other questions and issues secondary, including the 2012 Farm Bill. Whether or not Congress can craft a new farm bill in 2012 will depend as much on election year politics as finding the money or getting an agreement on substance. In short, getting a farm bill in 2012 will be very difficult.
Instead of budgetary numbers, most eyes will be focused on the number 270 - as in 270 electoral votes needed to win the presidency. Both parties are analyzing the various combinations of states that can get them to the magic 270. According to political consultants on both sides of the aisle, ground zero for the presidential campaign will be the Midwest, where agriculture remains the critical industry. The Obama campaign will also try to pick up some extra room in the West.
In 2011, net farm income topped $100 billion, up 28 percent from 2010. As noted by Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, “Agriculture continues to be a bright spot in our nation's economy… A strong U.S. agricultural economy means more opportunities for small businesses owners and jobs for folks who package, ship, and market agricultural products.” While the number of farmers needed to feed the country continues to decline, net farm income and farm exports drive the economic health of many “Main Streets” in rural America, especially in the Midwest.
And, going back to the magic number of 270, it's this heartland, where agriculture plays a major role politically, that could decide the election.
So, let's take a look at the political importance of some states where agriculture plays an important role in the outcome:
State Electoral Votes
TOTAL 83 (of the 270 needed)
Then when you add into mix, the “T” in Pennsylvania (20); Florida (29), New Mexico (5), Arizona (11), Washington (12) and Oregon (7) - you find 84 more electoral votes and quickly see the importance of agriculture to the outcome of the election this November.
Politicians and strategists for both parties need to pay attention to those 167 electoral votes, and how completing a Farm Bill, and making the needed compromises on substance, can strengthen their hand to claim them.
Kofi Annan, the former Secretary General of the United Nations and Chairman of the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa, succinctly outlined the larger world challenge for agriculture in a recent speech given in Durbin, South Africa:
“UNEP (United Nations Environment Program) estimates that land degradation, water and natural resource scarcity due to climate change, could reduce food production by 25% by the year 2050.
When set against FAO's (Food and Agriculture Organization) forecast that global food production needs to increase by 70% by 2050, to meet the demands of a growing and more affluent global population, we begin to see how serious this threat is.”
In order to meet this double-barreled challenge, and continue our leadership in the world, the next farm bill should, among other things:
- Provide an effective safety net for farmers;
- Increase our investment in agriculture research;
- Promote conservation;
- Expedite the clearance process for biotechnology;
- Invest in rural development;
- Improve the management of our National Forests;
- Protect the USDA nutrition programs since one third of America now has income below 150% of the poverty line; and
- Extend the full range of benefits from the USDA programs to Indian tribes where farming presents the best chance for a private sector economy.
My partner, colleague and friend, former Agriculture Secretary John (Jack) Block chaired the McCain Agriculture Committee in the last election, while I chaired the Obama Agriculture Committee. However, when it comes to agriculture policy, we frequently agree. Secretary Block recently noted that from an agriculture perspective, it may be a good thing that the Super Committee failed in that “The next farm bill should be written with the full participation of the House and Senate Ag Committees.” I agree with the Secretary that the Super Committee's failure may have a silver lining for agriculture.
The challenge of the next farm bill - given the politics, the budget constraints and the substantive goals of the bill - is simply too important to be left to any Super Committee.
After the last election, Secretary Block presented me with an ear of corn to mark the victory of President Obama. Whether he presents me with another ear of corn or whether I will have to return the corn after November 6th, may well depend on the politics of agriculture in 2012. Stay tuned.