by Chris Clayton
OMAHA (DTN) — Agriculture has a lot to gain if Republicans control both chambers of Congress and can get along with at least some parts of President Barack Obama's agenda over the next two years.
A GOP-led Congress could push back on environmental regulations while potentially facing more battles over budget cuts and renewable fuels. A GOP Congress also could break some gridlock over trade-promotion authority that would allow the Obama administration to cut key trade deals before leaving office.
“You are going to have a perfect opportunity for Congress to work,” said former Texas Rep. Charlie Stenholm in an interview. “I hope they take it and I hope they are successful because that means the country is successful.”
Much like the 2010 midterm elections, Democrats got shellacked across the country in several key Senate races, ceding the Senate to a Republican majority after eight years of Democratic control. Republicans picked up seats in Alaska, Arkansas, Colorado, Iowa, Montana, North Carolina, South Dakota and West Virginia to shift the Senate to Republican majority on Tuesday with at least 53 seats. The Louisiana race, in which the Republican candidate led, will go to a runoff.
Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., has been the minority leader, but now looks to be the presumed majority leader in 2015. McConnell has been a staunch opponent of President Obama but seemed to offer a small olive branch for compromise in his victory speech Tuesday evening.
“We do have an obligation to work together on issues where we can agree,” McConnell said in his televised speech. “I think we have a duty to do that. Just because we have a two-party system doesn't mean we have to be in perpetual conflict. I think I have shown that to be true at critical times in the past. I hope the president gives me a chance to show it again.”
When Republicans took over the House in the Gingrich revolution of 1994, Stenholm thought the change was good for the country after Democrats had controlled the House the prior 40 years. He now teaches a class on agriculture and energy policy at Tarleton State University in Stephenville, Texas, and continues lobbying Congress on both agricultural and energy issues.
The new Congress also is going to have to continue carrying the mantle for cutting the budget deficit, Stenholm said. Stenholm said he expects the ag committees are going to have comb through programs once again to offer recommendations for cuts.
“The 2014 farm bill is not sacrosanct,” Stenholm said. “If you get a budget, which I think we will, it will probably be a budget reconciliation bill. That means anything that gets into that budget, including parts of the farm bill, will be voted on with a simple majority, up or down. That's why the leadership of agriculture needs to start soon to see what kind of budget priorities are going to be on the table and how they will affect agriculture.”
Stenholm said the ag committees should be players in debates over the Renewable Fuels Standard and EPA's Clean Water Act rule redefining waters of the U.S. He also wants to see more assertive Ag Committee chairmen in both committees.
“I hope that the new House and Senate leadership will return ag policy to the ag committees,” Stenholm said.
Republicans have vowed to push for federal approval of the Keystone XL pipeline early in 2015. A more critical focus for the Corn Belt will be how a Republican Congress would handle the Renewable Fuels Standard. Tom Buis, CEO of Growth Energy, expects the American Petroleum Institute to continue ramping up pressure on Congress to modify or get rid of the Renewable Fuels Standard. Still, he doesn't expect anything politically to change for the next two years.
“The House has always been more of a problem than the Senate and neither side is going to have 60 votes,” Buis said. “I don't think you will see any energy policy pass. I think we're in for another stalemate. I don't think the election changes that. “
Buis said the Senate has shown more support for the RFS. Some newly-elected Republicans have vowed support for the RFS, such as Joni Ernst of Iowa who was challenged over that issue during the campaign. Still, the toxic climate in Washington is likely the best defense for the RFS.
“To get any type of energy policy it would take a total change in mood and the climate here in Washington,” Buis said. “It's tough to pass anything on energy when you have got a decent mood because there are so many diverse interests.”
Bob Dinneen, president and CEO of the Renewable Fuels Association, called the GOP Congress an assurance of “full employment over the next two years.” Dinneen noted Sen. Jim Inhofe, R-Okla., will likely be chairman of the Environment and Public Works Committee. Inhofe has pushed a bill to get rid of the RFS. Dinneen is confident such a bill won't get serious floor consideration because it would divide the GOP caucus. Dinneen argues ethanol is a regional issue and new Republican senators from states such as South Dakota, Iowa and Colorado will join up with other GOP biofuel stalwarts such as Sens. Charles Grassley of Iowa and John Thune of South Dakota.
“Our effort is going to be to ensure we have 40 votes to support the existing program,” Dinneen said.
Dinneen said he doesn't think Republicans are going to aggressively go after the RFS. Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., the expected majority leaders, wants to show Republicans can govern, especially because Republicans will have 24 seats to defend in 2016 while Democrats will only have to defend 10 seats. Dinneen said he thinks that would help deter the Senate from getting mired down in a contentious regional biofuels fight.
“I'm not terribly concerned that the sky is going to fall if Republicans take control,” Dinneen said. “It will certainly be more of the same.”
OTHER KEY ISSUES
Waters of the US: The Renewable Fuels Standard is under the purview of the EPA, which will have its hands full with a GOP-led Senate. The EPA/Army Corps of Engineers proposed rule changing the definition of waters of the U.S. became a political point for successful Republican candidates in several major states. With the extended comment period, EPA wouldn't be in a position to finalize any rule until at least next spring. That will give Congress ample time to block the rule, likely through an appropriations rider.
Trade: One indicator of whether a Republican-led Congress is willing to work with the Obama administration is trade. Senate Democrats have rejected efforts to pass fast-track authority that would allow the White House to more aggressively negotiate trade deals with Europe and Asia — the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership and the Trans-Pacific Partnership. Business groups want the president to signal for action in the lame-duck session while Obama is in China this coming week on a trade trip. At least some key Republicans will push to approve trade-promotion authority once they gain control.
Immigration: Following the 2012 presidential election, some Republicans called the party to support immigration reform. The GOP proved in 2014 they can even make gains in both chambers of Congress without making any efforts on immigration and even running against reform. Still, some believe the GOP will have to make some positive move before the presidential race heats up.
“They had better deal with immigration reform in the first six months of 2015 or they will pay the price,” Stenholm said.
Rep. Louis Gutierrez, D-Ill., said Tuesday evening on MSNBC that he wants to see President Obama do something big on immigration, such as follow the lead of the Senate bill and give legal status to millions of people. Gutierrez said swift action by the president on immigration could define his legacy.
“The president has to stand up for a community of people who have stood up for him,” Gutierrez said.
There is another factor to consider in weighing what direction Congress turns in any policy matter: The clock now starts for the 2016 presidential election cycle.
“You and I both know on Wednesday morning the 2016 presidential election begins,” Stenholm said.
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