If elections go as predicted, and Peterson loses the chairmanship, his agenda is likely dead. Peterson will almost certainly become the ranking minority member on the committee, which will allow him to retain some power in shaping the farm bill, but will effectively end his ability to push for an early start, and to craft a bill based on his own priorities. Frank Lucas (R-Oklahoma) is the likely successor to Peterson as House Ag. Committee chair, and DTN has quoted Peterson as saying “Lucas doesn’t want to move as quickly. He has got this idea it will be better if he waits. I don’t think that’s true, but that’s his prerogative. I think direct payments are a sure deal in the next farm bill. There won’t be any change in direct payments.”
On the Senate side, the outcome is far more difficult to predict. According to Rasmussen Reports, it is virtually assured that current Ag. Committee chair Blanche Lincoln (D-Arkansas) will lose her Senate seat. According to the DesMoines Register, Lincoln is “…as vigorous a proponent for large farms and livestock interests (think Arkansas-based Tyson Foods) as there is in Congress, and her tenure has borne that out with strong support for commodities and large farmers through direct payment subsidies and disaster relief. But though pollsters and pundits predict that Democrats will likely hold the Senate, the next Ag. Committee chair in that body remains uncertain. The most likely candidate seems to be Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Michigan), since she is the highest ranking member of the committee who doesn’t currently hold another committee chairmanship. My conversations with her aides in Michigan, and in her national office seem to suggest that she would very much like to take this position, and Politico speculates that a committee chairmanship might give her important political clout heading into her own 2012 reelection campaign. As one local aide pointed out to me, Stabenow has been an Ag. Committee member for virtually her entire political career, stretching back to her time in the Michigan Legislature. And her work inserting farmer training and support into Food Safety Legislation (S-510) within the HELP Committee (of which she is not a member) suggests that her interest in agriculture is genuine and passionate.
My own efforts to lobby her staff for support of the Tester Amendment to Food Safety Legislation “to exempt food facilities with under a certain annual gross sales threshold from preventative control plan requirements and to exempt farmers who primarily direct market product to consumers, stores or restaurants from the bill’s produce standards regulations”; and to ask for her support of new USDA GIPSA rules and an outcome from the USDA-DOJ workshops on corporate concentration and lack of competition in agriculture that would limit anti-competitive practices and the power of large agricultural corporations to control livestock markets and pricing, met with a rather tepid response. To me this suggests she is fearful that her chairmanship might be contested by commodity interests and other powerful ag. groups, and doesn’t want to ‘rock the boat’ at this time. Indeed, as Politico reports, an industry source close to the Ag. Committee has suggested “There would probably be fear among some of the industry leaders of the cotton people and the wheat people and the barley people if they saw Stabenow take the helm…”.
Michigan is the second most diverse agricultural state in the nation and has a lot of small and mid-sized farms. Stabenow’s push for programs to aid fruit and vegetable farmers in the 2008 farm bill may indicate that she is far less likely than Peterson, Lucas, or Lincoln to focus solely on commodity crops, and support for big agriculture. But there are reasons other than possible industry opposition to think that her assumption of the Ag. Committee chairmanship is not assured. According to Politico, there is a possibility that the Democratic leadership could appoint Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Nebraska) to the post, in an effort to keep him from switching parties, as he has threatened to do. And there is also an outside chance that Sen. Kent Conrad (D-North Dakota) could abandon his chairmanship of the Budget Committee in order to take the post. Both Nelson and Conrad represent states where large farms and commodity agriculture predominate. Thus neither are likely to focus their agendas on support for small farms or diverse agricultural crops.
In sum, my (admittedly oversimplified) take on the situation is that the House seems to be headed toward Ag. Committee leadership closely aligned with big agriculture and commodity interests, while Ag. Committee leadership in the Senate could tilt either way. Should Stabenow obtain the committee chairmanship, it is likely that there will be a large gap in farm bill priorities and structure between the two bodies, setting up a conference committee fight that is bound to be confrontational and testy. If Senate Ag. Committee leadership ends up in the hands of Nelson or Conrad, it will probably be less so, but the chances for progressive changes in the structure of the bill, and significant increases in support for small, local, diverse, and sustainable agriculture are bound, as usual, to take a back seat to the interests of big agricultural corporations and commodity groups.
For now we can only wait and see. But whoever you support, and wherever your agricultural interests, PLEASE GET OUT AND VOTE!