(Nov. 4) Immigration reform, tight budgets, an aggressive trade agreement agenda and a better chance for repeal of country-of-origin labeling could result from the 2004 U.S. election.

In the near term, a lame duck session of the Senate in mid-November could pass the House version of the Specialty Crop Competitiveness Act, produce industry lobbyists say.

Besides giving President Bush four more years in the White House, the 2004 election will result in expanded Republican majorities in the House and Senate — to a projected 230 seats in the House and 55 in the Senate.

While the presidential race was considered a tossup even on the midnight hour on election day, produce industry leaders said the outcome wasn’t shocking.

“I was surprised to see the extent of the popular vote (for Bush), and I was surprised that Sen. Kerry conceded the election as opposed to fighting for each and every vote,” said Jasper Hempel, executive vice president of Western Growers, Irvine, Calif.
The popular vote and the expansion of the GOP majority in the House and the Senate will give Bush a mandate, said Robert Guenther, vice president of public policy for the United Fresh Fruit & Vegetable Association, Washington, D.C.

However, it won’t change the working relationship the produce industry has with the administration and Capitol Hill, he said.

He said United will continue working on nutrition policy goals that will increase consumption of fruits and vegetables, in addition to seeking funding for investment in research and technical assistance for the industry.

Work to ensure better public policy treatment for the fruit and vegetable industry will continue into the second term of the administration, said Mike Stuart, president of the Florida Fruit & Vegetable Association, Maitland, Fla.

“We are not looking for subsidies for growers, we are looking for a federal commitment to support competitive opportunities for this industry,” he said.

Despite GOP gains in the Senate, industry lobbyists said the party still lacks the supermajority of 60 to end debate and assure passage of partisan bills.

In the next term, the administration will focus on curtailing spending and reducing taxes, said John McClung, president of the Texas Produce Association, Mission.

“It is going to be very difficult to get money out of Washington,” he said.

If Democrats had captured the Senate majority or if John Kerry had had won the White House, one Washington lobbyist who asked not to be identified said U.S. growers would be faced with new food safety and environmental legislation. That scenario is less likely now.

CONGRESS


The loss of the ranking Democrat on the House Agriculture Committee — Charlie Stenholm of Texas lost his seat to Republican Randy Neugebauer in a redrawn district — will change the dynamics on the committee.

His replacement as ranking Democrat, Collin Peterson of Minnesota, is a fiscal conservative with weaker ties to program crop interests than Stenholm.

Though House Agriculture Committee chairman Bob Goodlatte, R.-Va., is in place, sources said he would like to serve on the Judiciary Committee, possibly heading an immigration subcommittee.

Meanwhile, Sen. Thad Cochran, R-Miss., who has been the chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee, will head the Appropriations Committee in the next Congress.

Sen. Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga., is expected to chair the Senate Agriculture Committee, though other Republicans have seniority over him.

Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kan., could lead the Agriculture Committee if he decides to give up his chairmanship of the Intelligence Committee.

The loss of Sen. Tom Daschle , D-S.D., to Republican challenger John Thune could take some of the leadership away from country-of-origin issues.

Daschle was a main cog in giving the issue visibility in the Senate, but some lobbyists point out that Thune, too, is a proponent of mandatory labeling.

“I don’t think it changes that issue much at all,” Guenther said.

Stuart agreed that Daschle’s exit would not likely change much in the debate.

However, one Washington lobbyist said the chances of passage of a voluntary label system that would repeal mandatory labeling are much greater.

Hempel said Western Growers hoped that the Senate would consider the specialty crop bill on Nov. 15 or 16.

If it is not passed this year, Hempel said the search is under way for champions for the legislation in the next session of Congress. Both co-sponsors of the bills, Reps. Doug Ose, R-Calif., and Cal Dooley, D-Calif., did not seek re-election.

IMMIGRATION

Another high profile issue that could be acted on in the Senate during the lame duck session is the AgJobs immigration reform legislation that also changes the guest worker program for agriculture.

The question will be whether Bush and the House will want to take on the immigration issue immediately.

“Our approach will be is that there is no time like the present,” Hempel said, though he said other industries could want to wrap immigration in a bigger bill during the next Congress.

“I would like to think AgJobs will be the model for national immigration reform. It will be a program that can demonstrate where you can expand it to the 8 (million) to 12 million other undocumented workers in America,” he said.

The AgJobs legislation would apply to about 500,000 undocumented agriculture workers.

STATE LEVEL

On the state level, Hempel said the California Legislature maintained status quo.

One key initiative in the state, Proposition 72, would have required most businesses to provide health insurance for employees on a cost share basis.

The measure was narrowly rejected, with 50.9% opposing to 49.1% for the measure. Only 160,000 votes out of 9 million cast separated the issue.

Hempel said passage of the law would have made California businesses and farmers less competitive with their counterparts in other states.

“We need to find a solution that all of our employees can be covered in one way or another, but it’s hard to compete when we have to pay health insurance when nobody else does,” he said.

Rep.-elect Dan Lungren, a Republican who won Ose’s seat, is expected to seek a seat on the House Judiciary Committee.

Jim Costa, who won the seat vacated by Dooley, is a Democrat with a long track record of support for agriculture in California’s legislature.

VENEMAN

Produce industry leaders would not speculate whether Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman will return for a second term.

“Secretary Veneman is an old friend of ours,” Hempel said. McClung said Bush is loyal and said it was too early to say how many Cabinet officials would leave.

If Veneman isn’t retained, possible replacements could come from within the USDA, such as Undersecretary Bill Hawks. Hawks, from Mississippi, has ties to Appropriations Committee Chairman Cochran.

Some noted Bush could appoint a Democrat to the position as a post-election olive branch.

In that scenario, Democrats like Cal Dooley or Charlie Stenholm might be considered.

Another possibility is Allen Johnson, who works with the U.S. Trade Representative office.