Before we can grasp what 2015 could be like for agriculture politically, we need to sort out the last few hours of 2014's Congressional action.
True to its recent habit of abdicating spending responsibility, Congress rolled up a dozen or so spending bills into one giant omnibus bill and passed it at the last possible minute. I oppose these omnibus bills on principle, because it circumvents the process and does not force thorough debate on each department's budget and goals. It fosters higher spending levels. Passing a giant omnibus spending bill allows lots of stuff to get in the budget.
However, if there is no real budget voting process, restraint can be applied afterwards through congressional spending oversight. In this omnibus bill, at least some congressional oversight – in the case of prohibitions on department spending – worked to the advantage of free market livestock producers on key issues: mCOOL, a proposed new checkoff, WOTUS, GIPSA, sage grouse and Clean Air permits. Without getting into the technical details, the law directed USDA and USTR to work out COOL compliance with WTO rules no later than May 1, 2015; it stopped the new checkoff proposal; continues prohibitions on implementation of the livestock GIPSA rule; directs that EPA "shall withdraw the interpretive rule," but does not force a full defunding of the WOTUS rule; enacts greater sage grouse prohibitions, including rules for subspecies and regions; forbids any action requiring Title V Clean Air permits for CO2, NO2, water vapor or methane emissions from livestock operations and prohibits requiring greenhouse gas reporting related to manure management.
These are very welcome stalls but they are just that – temporary reprieves giving voters the opportunity to hammer Congress into doing permanent fixes. The livestock and farm groups that worked to get these halts in the bill are to be congratulated. It is encouraging, because these are the first signs of Congress taking oversight responsibilities seriously since the first GIPSA prohibitions years ago. All of these issues will require constant pressure to reach final resolutions. Keep using your congressmen's phone and e-mail contacts.
Overall, there are some encouraging signs on the general political front. Republicans did win the recent election. There have been glimmers of congressional oversight, in areas like the EPA and Interior – think coal, Bundy, government scandals and WOTUS. It will be critical in many areas that Harry Reid is no longer Senate majority leader. Specifically, Sen. Reid will not be there to block Trade Promotion Authority (TPA). There will still be Democratic opposition to TPA but at least there may be a debate over a bill, something Reid would not allow. With TPP and TTIP negotiations entering critical phases, the livestock industries need TPA – both for our export efforts but also to boost the overall world economy so more people everywhere can afford our products.
As for mCOOL, 2015 should finally see resolution, with specific direction from Congress to fix it, WTO appeals expiring and punishing retaliation looming if USDA and USTR don't get it together.
While export markets have held up well, we need tariff relief to make our products more affordable worldwide. We need access to new markets. And while the world economy is not as strong as the anemic U.S. economy, there is demand for American meat products.
Supposedly, a measure authorizing the Keystone XL pipeline is to be among the first pieces of business. It could be the first test of whether President Obama is going to stick to his ideological guns or whether he intends to work with the new Congress. President Obama supposedly regards trade, taxes and infrastructure as areas where he and Congress could work together. The problem is, it is likely he considers more and higher taxes as "tax reform," restricting imports as trade progress and as for infrastructure, it is not built by thousands of men with picks and shovels like in the Great Depression. Sen. Reid made sure Obama didn't need his veto pen. He may wear it out the next couple years.
Keep in mind President Obama does not consider the recent election as a repudiation of his policies. He believes that he and the Democrats did not successfully communicate how great their policies are, not that they could possibly be wrong – or that we could be smart enough to catch on.
The Jonathan Gruber brouhaha is a perfect illustration. He's the “bastard father” of Obamacare but no court will force him to pay "child support." That's the taxpayers' job. The real revelation was not that we caught one of the ruling elite calling voters idiots. The sharp point is that they were right – they could fool way too many voters with lies a ten-year-old should have seen through. Witness: we elected President Barack Obama. Twice.
The Republicans may not change their spots either. Even though good men have announced challenges to Speaker Boehner for House leadership, the odds are in favor of the establishment. It remains to be seen how much change Republican control of both houses really yields.
It is also encouraging that on issues involving EPA and Interior, the long-term howls from agriculture are being joined by serious efforts from other industries, like energy, power generation, mining and construction. Coal regulations, grouse and prairie chicken threats and energy development problems are forcing the coalescing of opposition far beyond farmers and ranchers. Hallelujah!
By the way, if President Obama is interested in infrastructure, maybe he ought to drop by EPA and Interior and tell them to lay off. Infrastructure of all scales, from critical puddle control to pipelines, takes billions of dollars and years of added struggle to plan and construct – forced by government overregulation.
I also see 2015 as possibly the year where human nutrition and health get center stage and, hopefully, some course correction. There are several bills from Republicans targeting Michelle Obama's school nutrition rules and other aspects of FDA proposed regulations and prescriptions. A Politico story not only detailed a host of Republican committee chairmen and some Democrats upset with intrusive government rules but the School Nutrition Association – 55,000 school cafeteria professionals – is fighting government rules causing major food waste and busted school budgets. ("2015, the Year the GOP Strikes Back at Obama Food Policies," 12/30/14). Also on tap, labeling fights on alcoholic beverages, theater snacks, delivery food plus salt and GMO content labeling.
The sordid history of the war on animal products, as chronicled so well in "The Big Fat Surprise," is the flip side of an Ohio State study showing the problems with the nutrition establishment and government pushing carbohydrates instead. With multiple studies finally getting attention regarding the dangers of a high carbohydrate diet, of course the government is going in exactly the opposite direction. A landmark battle this year will be to stop the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee from practically recommending a ban on red meat in the diet, especially in school lunch programs.
Immigration will get lots of attention from the new Congress but how it will work out is, frankly, a worrisome prospect. The Senate bill of the 113th Congress is now dead (Reid is not leader and Congress can start fresh).
Most conservatives want to start out with real border security steps. Republican leadership and some business interests, however, are not focused on tightening the border. I'm guessing most agricultural interests with labor needs do want to see a substantial guest worker program but not something that just opens the border up to get it. The president wants to give the utmost legal status and financial support through government programs to illegal immigrants that are already here. And if those gold-plated opportunities entice more illegals across the border, oh pshaw!
The omnibus bill includes 60 days worth of funding for DHS and, by using that money and funds already directed to implementing Obama's executive memoranda, DHS is working frantically to get as many of the current illegals processed as soon as possible.
If President Obama's strategy of making the bold move and daring anyone to stop him works – given the wimpy opposition from the Republican leadership, that's a good bet – there could actually be some room for a border security bill to pass and get signed by Obama to entice the Republicans to continue reform efforts.
In my opinion, unless conservatives do something to replace the leadership from the Wuss Wing of the Republican Party, I'm not sure a border security bill would even be pushed hard. And Democrats would do everything they could to make sure any border security bill had no real teeth.
While I understand that Hispanics are a rapidly growing share of voters and important for the future, I cannot understand the Republican leadership's abject panic, their capitulation to the administration's moves, over eight percent of the voting population. Giving over the country's future, allowing America to become a magnet for the uneducated, illiterate, poor of the world with no prospect of assimilation into true American citizens, is not an outcome most Americans want. Why should it be for congressional leadership?
Congressmen need to hear from livestock producers regarding what they do and do not want on all these issues. The election message wasn't enough by itself.
The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Steve Dittmer, a veteran in agricultural policy and commentator.