The strong Republican showing in the 2014 election carries potential implications for nutrition policy, spending bills and the prospect of immigration reform in the next two years.
With Senate races in Virginia and Alaska still pending a final call, Republicans gained at least 7 seats, with the GOP now holding 52 seats in the Senate, one more than the 51 needed for majority. After the mid-term elections, Republicans hold 243 seats in the House, a gain of 15 seats, and well above the 218 needed for majority.
“Every close race broke their way,” said Robert Guenther, senior vice president of public policy for the Washington, D.C.-based United Fresh Produce Association.
In food-related issues decided at the state level, voters in Colorado and Oregon defeated state measures that would have required mandatory labeling of genetically modified food. Voters in Maui passed a moratorium against the cultivation of genetically engineered crops by a narrow margin.
Guenther said that it remains to be seen how the change in leadership in the Senate will affect industry issues.
“We have got to see where folks land in terms of leadership on our committees,” he said.
Guenther said a unified Congress could give Republicans a great opportunity to work on issues like immigration reform, child nutrition reauthorization, budget and tax issues and other topics.
Kansas Republican Sen. Pat Roberts will be the Senate Agriculture Committee chairman and likely will begin work on child nutrition reauthorization in 2015.
“Certainly they now have the ability to develop policy that can be sent to the president for his consideration,” he said.
“The question is whether the administration is willing to work with the new Congress and try to find some compromise and some deals to be made on certain issues, or are we going to spend another two years at odds with each other between the Democrats and Republicans,” Guenther said.
A Nov. 7 meeting of President Barack Obama and members of Congress may start to define how well Republicans and Democrats will work together in the next two years, he said.
President Obama said Nov. 5 that he is determined to take executive action on immigration reform by the end of this year, but has not yet indicated what that might be included in that executive action beyond additional funds for border operations. However, he said he will welcome immigration reform legislation from Republicans.
While some observers have speculated that school lunch rules could be vulnerable to rollback by Republicans, Guenther said the industry has a good story to tell.
“Healthy food in schools is going to continue to be very important to us, and we are going to tell that story to the folks in charge,” he said.
Guenther said the GOP-led Congress has a clear path to immigration reform.
“There are no more excuses from Republicans on immigration, period,” Guenther said. “They need to deliver an immigration reform package that helps agriculture and helps reform our country.”
However, Republicans may not move very far or very fast toward immigration reform that gives illegal immigrants legal status. A CBS News exit poll said 57% of voters favor giving illegal immigrants working in the U.S. a chance to apply for legal status, while 38% said they should be deported. Most Democrats and independents back legal status, but most Republican voters do not. Immigration ranked behind the economy and health care as top issues for American voters, according to CBS.
Funding of the Food and Drug Administration will be an important issue to watch, but Guenther said Republicans may not have a lot to say about FDA policies prior to the agency’s release of final food safety rules toward the end of next year.
Ferd Hoefner, policy director for the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, Washington, D.C., said it is uncertain whether Congress will finish work on appropriation legislation in December or continue to operate on a continuing resolution into next year.
He noted some observers believe the influence of the conservative Tea Party wing of the Republican party has diminished, which could mean that the Republican establishment may be more willing to get things done with Democrats.
“I hope we are not in complete gridlock for two years.”