WASHINGTON, July 2, 2014 – With less than 30 days before Rep. Kevin McCarthy officially moves into the Majority Leader’s office, several agricultural groups are optimistic that the strong working relationship they’ve enjoyed with the California Republican will only strengthen as he climbs the leadership ladder. But how those relationships transfer into legislative action – especially on a contentious issue like immigration reform – remains to be seen.
The former deli owner, congressional aide and California state lawmaker is no stranger to the wide variety of concerns raised by growers and agricultural workers in the region he serves, or the political action committee dollars they deliver (See table, below). And when he’s not tied up in Washington or working to elect Republicans in other parts of the country, he travels back to his district every weekend.
“He has that on-the-ground understanding and relationships with growers in his district,” says Josh Rolph, national affairs director for the California Farm Bureau. “They have his cell phone number and he’s always been very accessible.”
Tom Nassif, the CEO of Western Growers in California and Arizona, agrees that McCarthy has long championed agricultural interests.
“When he deals with our folks, we feel like we are dealing with a friend,” Nassif adds.
But grower groups also understand that McCarthy will have quite a few more plates to juggle in his new role, including the often conflicting demands of his GOP caucus.
“When you become Majority Leader, you need to look at the big picture and the needs of the U.S. economy as well as each industry, so we will all have to share more of his time,” Nassif said. “Still, all politics is really local and Kevin understands that. He will always look after the best interests of his district.”
California’s 23rd District, which spans Kern and Tulare counties in the southern end of the San Joaquin Valley, is indeed an agricultural powerhouse. Kern County has more ground in agriculture – 2.3 million acres --than any other county in the state. The gross value of its commodities in 2012 was $6.2 billion. Grapes, almonds, milk, citrus and pistachios make up 62 percent of the total value of commodities in the county. Cattle, carrots, alfalfa hay, cotton and potatoes complete the top 10 commodities in the county. More than 10 others add to the county’s diversity. Tulare County is home to more milk cows than any other county in the nation with 489,436 head of cattle on 244 farms, generating annual milk sales of $1.8 billion. Immigrant labor is important in the district, which is 35 percent Hispanic.
It’s hard to imagine any previous Majority Leader – at least in recent history - who has been privy to such a plethora of agricultural issues, with perhaps the exception of the late Tom Foley. After serving as chairman of the House Agriculture Committee from 1975 to 1981, the Washington Democrat was elected Majority Leader in 1987 and Speaker from 1989-1995.
First elected to House in 2006, McCarthy was named to the Agriculture Committee for the 100th Congress, but since then he has served on the Financial Services Committee. In what perhaps was an early indicator of his future leadership potential and friendship with now Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, then Republican Leader Boehner said in a Jan. 2007 press release:
“Securing a coveted seat on the Agriculture Committee is a testament to Congressman McCarthy’s talents and sign of the confidence we in leadership have in him as a young lawmaker.”
Chuck Conner, president of the National Council of Farmer Cooperatives (NCFC), said his organization is “pretty excited” about having McCarthy as Majority Leader, someone who will be more of a “uniter” working with both Republicans and Democrats. “I think he’s got all the tools to be that person that can pull things together.”
Conner says he remembers a number of meetings during the farm bill process - when things were really stuck and McCarthy and his staff were trying to break the logjam.
“There was a clear desire on his part to see a resolution of the outstanding issues that were going to be necessary in order for the farm bill to be completed,” Conner added.
“Certainly we know that McCarthy was doing all that he could to help us before this ascension and now that he is one higher step in the House leadership, he’s in a position to have a greater influence in that process. We can only hope that in spite of all the obstacles out there, in spite of many people absolutely declaring immigration dead, we’re going to continue to make our case. It’s a compelling case with 70 percent of our labor force in agriculture being undocumented.”
During his first cable TV interview after being elected Majority Leader, McCarthy was asked by Chris Wallace on Fox News Sunday about his past support for immigration reform and whether he would support legislation before the November elections. But McCarthy shot back, saying that nothing is possible “until we secure the borders.”
“Until we secure the borders - because the borders are not secure - we're not enforcing the laws. And I think that's a reasonable position. Until that's secure, you can't have an immigration debate.”
Since that interview, both Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, and President Barack Obama have drawn ever deeper lines in the sand, virtually removing any chances of immigration reform moving prior to the November elections.
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