(During the World Ag Expo in Tulare, the manager of the California Farm Bureau Federation National Affairs and Research Division, Jack King, spoke on the topic "What's in Store with the New Congress?" Here are excerpts adapted from his remarks.)
I truly believe that all the concern about our nation's deficit will heavily drive the policy debate in Washington over the next couple of years. That will have a lot of bearing on agriculture. We have good commodity prices for the most part, certainly for the big acreage crops across the country.
As a state, we are affected differently by federal crop supports because a relatively small proportion of our farms participate directly in farm programs (and those commodities are faring better price-wise). But, when the last Farm Bill was created, there was a big push to have programs included for specialty crops—not direct support programs, but research, help with trade development, school nutrition programs where they would be serving fresh fruits and vegetables in schools.
The reason I mention this is that we will be debating the farm bill again in the next few years at a time when the new Republican majority in the House will be pressing for budget cuts. Those budget cuts are already being talked about, before the current farm bill expires. So we are looking at a very strong possibility that there will be budget cuts that will affect existing programs.
We will need to get to a point where we can identify what programs are highly efficient and the most valuable, which programs pay for themselves. I think we would all agree that research into disease prevention, research into new crop varieties, pest exclusion at our borders, these are high priorities. I think the challenge that we'll face is making sure that those priorities truly emerge.
The whole world food situation right now is at a point where there's a lot of concern that unrest—whether it's in Egypt or other places—has a lot to do with food shortages and food inflation. What we're going to see is some real questions raised: Do you raise corn and other grains for ethanol, or do you move that into the food chain? That debate is going to play out and you have very different views in Congress—and within agriculture—on that issue.
Trade agreements and funds to aid in trade development to help in opening markets is an important issue. About four years ago, we had completed trade agreements with Panama, Colombia and Korea. Those agreements have sat idle all these ensuing years. I think the trade bills will be a big measure of just how serious President Obama is about being business-friendly. I think we'll see passage of the free trade agreements; it may not come quickly, but that will be one step forward.
This new Congress is going to have a pivotal role when it comes to immigration. We have been trying for years to pass immigration legislation that would lead to a viable guest-worker program. After years of trying, we finally convinced legislators on both sides of the aisle that agriculture is critically dependent on a foreign-born work force, and there is acknowledgement that we need a guest-worker program. But we face objections on a lot of different fronts.
We have a segment of Congress who says any immigration program that proceeds has to be comprehensive. You have others who say they don't want legislation to proceed in any fashion that leads to legalization. And then there is a subset who acknowledge agriculture has a problem, are willing to fix it, but we can't get the sides together. That's truly the problem we face today on immigration.
On health care, we're seeing a big struggle in Congress between those defending the health care bill and those trying to repeal it. As employers and as self-employed individuals, as most California farm families are, it is going to be mighty interesting to see what your health care responsibility will be as an employer. For example, if you have 50 or more employees, whether you have to provide health insurance to your work force or pay a fine. That bears a lot of watching on where we end up with health care.
I think all of us in the farm community are very concerned about regulations, not only those that just don't make sense, but those that cost a lot of money and make life miserable for people. There are attempts in both the state of California and now the Republican House through its oversight function, to take a look at what the agencies are doing with regard to regulations.
Climate change regulations will be the topic of oversight hearings, there may be some oversight regarding food safety and the functions of the Food and Drug Administration. Congressional oversight hearings will be a major activity playing out this year in Washington.
The California Farm Bureau board of directors will be traveling back to Washington the end of this month. We're going to be talking about immigration, health care and trade, and it's going to be interesting to see what the climate is. We are fortunate in California agriculture that we have a pretty cohesive working partnership with Democrats and Republicans. Of all the issues in Washington, agriculture is probably as bipartisan as you're going to find.
Source: Jack King, California Farm Bureau Federation