(Nov. 20) What will the Bushification of America mean for agriculture?

I use the newly minted word with a nod to CBS News anchor Dan Rather, who on election night asked, “Could we be seeing the Bushification of America?”

Well, Dan, it’s a pretty good bet that President Bush’s high approval rating had much to do with the ability of the Republican Party to gain control of the Senate and expand control of the House of Representatives. He put his personal popularity on the line for Republican candidates and made a case that America’s agenda depended on the outcome.

Given the new composition and raised expectations of GOP-controlled Congress, what is ahead for agriculture?

There will be new leaders of both the House and Senate Agriculture Committees. In the Senate, Thad Cochran of Mississippi will become Agriculture Committee chairman once the 108th Congress begins. Cochran may not be as friendly to nutrition issues as Democratic Sen. Tom Harkin of Iowa, the former chairman who will now be ranking Democrat.

In the House, Republican Larry Combest of Texas, chair of the Agriculture Committee, has decided to step down for personal reasons. His resignation will be effective on May 31, and he will step down from his chairman role on the Agriculture Committee in January.

Ohio’s John Boehner was vice chair of the Agriculture Committee in the 107th Congress but is not expected to take over the committee since he already chairs the Education and Workforce Committee.

Likely candidates to replace Combest as chair of the House Agriculture Committee include Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., who has served on the committee for five years. Goodlatte put out a pre-emptory press release on Nov. 12, indicating he looks forward to assuming leadership of the committee. Not so fast, my friend.

The ultimate decision on the leadership post will be up to House Speaker Dennis Hastert of Illinois. Other Republican candidates that have also served on the committee for five terms include produce industry friend Richard Pombo from California, Frank Lucas from Oklahoma and Terry Everett from Alabama.

It seems to bode well for the industry that Richard Pombo will take on a higher profile on the Agriculture Committee. He has been a consistent advocate for the industry and industry services such as the Perishable Agricultural Commodities Act.

Once the committee leaders and new members are set, what issues will they deal with?

The farm bill and homeland security legislation will be in the rear view mirror, but there are plenty of other items that will compete for attention. Let’s consider the possibilities: disaster assistance, child nutrition reauthorization, oversight of World Trade Organization negotiations, crop insurance reform and expansion, possible rethinking of checkoff programs, PACA oversight and biotech regulation.

Disaster assistance will be a tough sell without cuts in other USDA spending.

The challenge for the produce industry will be securing new dollars for the expansion of nutrition programs. It may not be easy — though nutrition is about as good as it gets when it comes to a feel-good bipartisan issue.

Harkin reportedly would like to expand the pilot program that provides free produce to school children in more than 100 schools in four states and an Indian reservation. The staggering expense of expanding the program nationwide will probably mean any expansion will depend on public/private partnerships.

The government won’t foot the whole bill for this program that the industry hopes is too good to be discontinued but may ultimately be too good to be true.

Produce industry lobbyists are looking to propose significant increases in fresh produce purchases by government feeding programs.

It still holds that the industry’s best allies in the fight for funding and prominence are health care trends that are sounding alarms for Americans. More than 60% of Americans are considered overweight or obese. Being in that category means a greater risk for heart disease, certain types of cancer, diabetes, stroke, arthritis, breathing problems and depression. Whew! We need some healthy eating and good clean living.

In that respect, the industry enjoys another tremendous advantage in public relations power.

What the Bush administration has are people committed to a healthier America. Both Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson and Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman have shown themselves willing to use the bully pulpit on behalf of fruits and vegetables, and Bush has also been visible in his role as fitness coach for John Q. Public.

While nutrition will grab its share of headlines, perhaps the biggest issues in the early months of next year could be the progress of World Trade Organization negotiations. How much will the U.S. give and how much will get? The U.S. has proposed a reduction in domestic trade-distorting support from $19.1 billion to $9.5 billion. What kind of reciprocal response can we expect from Japan and Europe?

It’s a new era in Washington, and Republicans will take the credit and the blame for it. More specifically, Bush will be the lightning rod for praise and criticism.

Looking ahead, Bush can pre-empt harangues from Democrats if he provide generous funding of nutrition programs in his budget in late January. He can answer detractors in the agriculture sector by pushing his negotiators to craft trade deals with clear benefits to American agriculture.

If he does, the Bushification of America will not be in vain.