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Election Results Will Influence Farm Policy Leadership in Congress

November 7, 2014

This week’s Republican wave election, combined with congressional retirements and term limits, will shake up the leadership of key congressional committees for food and agriculture.  Here is the brief rundown.

Senate Agriculture: With the Republican takeover of the Senate, it is highly likely that Senator Thad Cochran (R-MS), the current Ranking Member of the Senate Agriculture Committee, will be named as the new incoming Chair of the Senate Appropriations Committee, a position he also occupied from 2005-2007.  It is also highly likely that Senator Pat Roberts (R-KS) will be named as the new incoming Chair of the Senate Agriculture Committee, reprising a role he played in the 1990s on the House Agriculture Committee.

As House Agriculture Chair, Roberts was a driving force behind the “freedom to farm” commodity policy that was a highlight of the 1996 Farm Bill and that was partially reversed in the 2002 Farm Bill and then completely abolished in the 2014 Farm Bill that became law earlier this year.  Roberts also helped lead an effort over the past several years to scale back the SNAP (food stamps) program and voted against the 2014 Farm Bill, leading to some press speculation that he might want to re-open the bill.  However, for the time being at least, that seems quite unlikely.

There has been some speculation in the press that current Chair Debbie Stabenow (D-MI) might, rather than becoming the Agriculture Ranking Member next year might switch to that same position on the Budget Committee.  However, her spokespeople say that is not the case and that she will continue on as the lead Democrat on Agriculture.  Were she to make a change, the next Ranking Member might possibly be Senator Amy Klobuchar (D-MN), but that now appears unlikely.

Gone from the Committee next year will be three Senators who are retiring – Tom Harkin (D-IA), Saxby Chambliss (R-GA), and Mike Johanns (R-NE).  In addition, Senator John Walsh (D-MT) withdrew his election bid earlier this summer.  With the upcoming change in the partisan ratios on all congressional committees as a result of the elections this week, Senate Agriculture is likely to have no openings for additional Democratic members, but will undoubtedly have space for four or more new Republican members.  Committee assignment campaigns and decisions will take weeks if not months to be worked out and approved.  We will report on developments as they begin to solidify.

House Agriculture: Though current House Agriculture Chair Frank Lucas easily won his re-election contest, he is term limited by House GOP rules and thus cannot return next year as Chair, though will remain on the Committee.  The odds-on favorite to become the Chair is Representative Mike Conaway (R-TX).  Though several members are more senior than Conaway, they all have other high level positions on other committees they are unlikely to want to relinquish to take over on Agriculture.

On the Democratic side, Ranking Member Collin Peterson (D-MN) won his hotly contested race and will return to his role as the lead Democrat on the Committee.  The second most senior member of the Committee on the Democratic side, Mike McIntyre (D-NC), retired from Congress, as did Gloria Negrete McLeod (D-CA).  Two and possibly three Committee Democrats lost their re-election bids – Pete Gallego (D-TX), Bill Enyart (D-IL), and quite possibly senior Committee member Jim Costa (D-CA), though the race has not been officially called yet.

The only Republican member of the Committee to lose on Tuesday was Representative Vance McAllister (R-LA), the most junior Republican on the Committee.

Even with whatever ratio changes are made in the House, there would appear to be at least a few open slots for new members on the Democratic side, and perhaps one or two on the Republican side.  It is also possible, of course, that some existing Committee members will decide to leave the Committee, in which case additional slots may open.

Senate Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee: Current Chair Mark Pryor (D-AR) lost his re-election bid so will not return next year as the Ranking Member.  The new chair will likely be the current Ranking Member, Roy Blunt (R-MO).  In addition to Pryor, the Democratic side of the Subcommittee also loses retiring Senators Tom Harkin (D-IA) and Tim Johnson (D-SD).   The Full Committee also loses retiring Senator Mike Johanns (R-NE), though the former Secretary of Agriculture did not sit on the Agriculture Subcommittee.  There were no Republican casualties or retirements among the current GOP members of the Subcommittee.

The new Ranking Member may not be known for some time yet, as the committee assignment process works itself out.  The most likely contenders are Senators Jon Tester (D-MT), Tom Udall (D-NM), and Jeff Merkley (D-OR).

House Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee: None of the current members of the House Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee lost their re-election bids this week.  However, Rep. Tom Latham (R-IA), a senior member of the House Subcommittee, did not run for re-election.  It is widely expected that the Chair of the House Subcommittee, Rep. Robert Aderholt (R-AL), will seek to lead the House Commerce, Justice, and Science Appropriations Subcommittee.  This could leave Rep. Alan Nunnelee (R-MS) in line to take over the Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee, though others with more seniority could jump in line ahead of him or he could seek another position.  At this point it remains unclear.

There may be no changes in subcommittee membership on the Democratic side unless one of the current members decides to move off.

Other Contests: David Perdue defeated Michelle Nunn 53-45 which means no runoff in Georgia in the race to replace Senator Saxby Chamblis, a current Agriculture Committee member.  Perdue is rumored to want a seat on the Senate Agriculture Committee.

In Louisiana, Senator Mary Landrieu (D-LA) heads to a December 6 runoff with Representative Bill Cassidy (R-LA) to retain her top position on the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, though, if re-elected, she would become Ranking Member rather than Chair.  Landrieu has won two of her three prior Senate elections in a runoff, though this may well be the toughest one yet for her.

Republicans take control of the Senate with at least 53 seats and potentially 54, depending on the outcome in Louisiana.  They won open seats in West Virginia, South Dakota, Iowa, Georgia, and Montana.  Republican challengers defeated Democratic incumbents in Colorado, North Carolina, Arkansas, and Alaska.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) handily beat Alison Lundergan Grimms, 56 percent to 41 percent.  Without any obvious challengers he is highly likely to be elected Majority Leader in January and will also likely maintain his positions on the Senate Agriculture Committee and Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee.

The House Republican’s expanded their Majority by at least 13 seats, giving them their largest majority since the 1940’s.  Only three Republican incumbent Representatives where defeated, Lee Terry (R-NE), Vance McAllister (R-LA), and Steve Southerland (R-FL).  From a food policy perspective, Southerland’s loss is particularly noteworthy given the leading role he played in the at-first successful but ultimately-failed attempt to make big cuts to SNAP, a move that caused the House to initially vote down the Farm Bill in 2013.

GMO Ballot Initiatives: Two GMO “right to know” labeling ballot initiatives failed in Oregon and Colorado.  Oregon Measure 92 to label foods made with GMOs failed narrowly, with reportedly less than 51 percent of voters opposing it.  It was the most expensive ballot initiative in Oregon’s history.  Supporters of the measure spent roughly $8 million – a record for Oregon on a Yes Campaign — and opponents spent over $20 million.

Colorado also voted down a mandatory GMO labeling initiative — Prop 105 — with roughly 70 percent voting No.  Opponents spent approximately $12 million dollars to defeat the initiative.

In Maui County, Hawaii, a ban on planting GMO crops until public health and environmental studies conclusively demonstrate their safety in the county was approved with just over 50 percent of the vote.  This was an impressive outcome, given that opponents of the measures spent $12 million to defeat it — outspending supporters 87 to 1.

Soda Tax: A one cent-per-ounce tax on drinks such as non-diet soda, energy drinks like red bull, and syrups used to flavor beverages at coffee shops was passed by 75 percent of Berkeley, California voters.  Having done what more than 30 cities and states across the country have failed to do, Berkeley’s historic vote was credited as resulting, at least in part, from the support of groups such as the American Heart Association, American Academy of Pediatrics, NAACP, and former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg, who contributed over $500,000 to the campaign, to, among other things, pay for local TV ads aired during the World Series.  The tax takes effect January 1, 2015 and is estimated to raise more than $1 million per year for the city’s general fund.

On the other side of the bay, a similar ballot measure in San Francisco failed to pass with the required two-thirds supermajority (Berkeley’s measure only required a simple majority to pass).  Measure E, which had 54.5 percent of the vote, would have imposed a tax of two cents per ounce on sugar-sweetened beverages for distributors.  Unlike Berkeley’s ballot measure, San Francisco’s Measure E required a two-thirds majority because the revenue was going not to the city’s general fund, but to a special fund for recreation and nutrition programs in schools and parks. The American Beverage Association, an industry lobby group representing soda manufacturers, spent $2.4 million in Berkeley and $9.1 million in San Francisco funding “no” campaigns.

Categories: Budget and Appropriations, Farm Bill, General Interest

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