The sharply divided government that emerged from this month’s midterm elections will make it hard to get much done for agriculture in the coming months, according to panelists on a Farm Foundation Forum held Nov. 14 in Washington, D.C., and broadcast live online.
Midterm voters elected 435 members of the House, 35 members to the Senate and 36 governors, along with numerous state and local office-holders.
Democrats took control of the House of Representatives and Republicans maintained the Senate, setting up a Congressional standstill. Meanwhile, several big issues critical to food and agriculture, including a new farm bill, trade, immigration and health care, demand attention.
“The next two years will be knock-down, drag-out, brutal, partisan in every way,” said Chris Clayton, agricultural policy editor for DTN/Progressive Farmer.
Clayton said a new farm bill needs to get passed yet this year, if only for the sake of U.S. Rep. Mike Conaway, R-Texas, chairman of the House ag committee.
Before the farm bill was drafted, the focus was on protecting crop insurance; it has since shifted to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP benefits.
“House Republicans got exactly what they wanted,” Clayton said. “They wanted a Republican-only farm bill to pass. They didn’t have the foresight to think it wouldn’t carry over and win. They got a partisan bill. They really put themselves in a corner.
“They’ve got no leverage, but they can’t screw around. They have to get it done.”
Teaganne Finn, congressional reporter for Bloomberg Government, said some spots on the ag committee could be filled by Democratic “suburban moms” who don’t care about crop insurance but will want to focus on food stamp and nutrition programs.
If a farm bill gets done on the sooner side, she said, U.S. Rep. Collin Peterson, D-Minn., has indicated a desire to begin fostering young talent on the committee and preparing them to take on bigger roles.
If a farm bill doesn’t pass during the lame-duck session, Clayton said, “the risk becomes greater as you move forward because they’re looking at budget deficits and places to cut.”
Focusing on SNAP cuts puts a big target on crop insurance for next year, he said. House Democrats will scrutinize all this money going out in crop insurance payments.
“House Republicans put themselves in this corner and don’t know how to get out of it,” Clayton said.
Jerry Hagstrom of The Hagstrom Report and The National Journal said the almost $5 billion in trade aid payments to farmers shortly before the election may have played a small role in how the midterms turned out, but they’re really more of a “placeholder” for a more permanent fix later on.
Clayton said the U.S. has only made 4 percent of its usual soybeans sales to China by this point in the year, and bean stockpiles are forming.
“Something needs to happen, particularly in the Dakotas, to move them,” Clayton said. “They need something done by the end of this year or Brazil will come in with their new crop.
“If farmers are still holding these soybeans into spring, we could see … some electoral risk for Trump in 2020. As the margins are, it doesn’t take much to flip some of these states from red to blue.”
Finn agreed that it will be very difficult to get anything done in the next Congress. She added that big changes could be coming on federal appropriations committees, and with Democrats in power in the House, there could be enhanced oversight of the U.S. Department of Agriculture and issues such as food safety.
“That will be an interesting dynamic with a Republican Senate,” Finn said. “There are a lot of big changes coming our way in committee leadership.”
Politico reporter Helena Bottemiller Evich said that, as the situation in Congress remains “dead-locked,” state policies may become more interesting and crucial.
Defining rural voters
Despite a sluggish farm economy and challenges with trade and tariffs, rural America continues to back President Donald Trump, said Sara Wyant, president of Agri-Pulse Communication.
In a poll of some 600 U.S. farmers just before the elections, almost 80 percent indicated that they still are in favor of what the Trump administration is doing.
After the 2016 presidential election, the general media had no choice but to sit up and take note of rural voters, but Hagstrom argues that journalists and politicians must stop talking about rural America as “one thing.”
Rural areas vary widely nationwide and have very different cultures, he said, and “parts of rural states are very much a part of the larger area.” The population of North Dakota, for example, is 55 percent urban and voted overwhelmingly for Democrats.
“In the future, people working on campaigns or analyzing them will have to look into that,” Hagstrom said, “and think about those places as individual places, not as some phenomena in which social conservatism dominates.
“Demographics and issues in North Dakota are very different from California and upstate New York.”
He said political party leaders are not taking the “rural push” very seriously and still heavily skew toward urban voters. This has caused some frustration in the Democratic party, in particular.
However, Democrats could gain ground on trade issues, Hagstrom said.
“If these steel and aluminum tariffs stay on, if there are almost no soybean exports to China, if the rural economy tanks, then I could see these rural states turning to Democrats,” he said. “We could see farmers turn against Republicans.”
Hagstrom said it’s up to everyone involved in agriculture and with an interest in rural America to help educate the national media and politicians about the different segments of rural voters.
“They toss it off too easily,” he said. “I think the media doesn’t completely understand Texas. It’s viewed as totally Republican, but look how close (Democratic Senate candidate) Beto O’Rourke got.”
Not all rural voters are farm voters, Clayton said. In fact, most rural voters don’t work in agriculture.
“We underestimate the mindset of the social issues with rural voters,” including abortion, having a conservative Supreme Court, gun control and immigration, he said. “They can’t be discounted, no matter what is going on with the economy or the farm economy.”
Before the 2016 election, “rural” had not appeared on Politico’s home page, Evich said. More effort is being made to understand those areas, but, she said, “it’s not a monolithic voting block.”
There’s growing interest in breaking down who rural voters are, and while it’s entering the conversation, she said, “it’s maybe not as nuanced as we’d like to read about.”
Committee choices will matter a lot to the new Democrats coming into office, Clayton said. They will need to consider how they can represent their rural constituents, whether it’s on food policy, energy policy or something else.
“Their committee choices are going to set a tone for that,” he said.
Hagstrom said there will be plenty of competition from Democrats to get on the House ag committee, and some Republicans who were re-elected may have to leave the committee because there won’t be enough open slots.
“It will be a very interesting battle,” he said.
Hagstrom said the Democrats coming in as state ag commissioners likely will put increased emphasis on organics and locally produced foods, and they’ll be more involved in issues such as child nutrition and obesity.
Many ag commissioners will have to work through issues surrounding cannabis and the push toward legalization of marijuana, he said.
“Marijuana is becoming a crop in these places. It’s very lucrative for people, but it faces many regulatory issues,” he said, adding, “We know so little about the impact of marijuana from a pharmaceutical standpoint.”
Evich said Oregon’s recreational marijuana market has plateaued, and some of those growers are looking at hemp, not for fiber but for cannabidiol, or CBD, oil for use in alternative medicine.
Many recent ballot initiatives could have implications for rural areas, she said. Michigan voters moved to legalize marijuana and hemp, while Oklahoma and Utah both legalized medical marijuana.
“It’s definitely an issue to watch, and it’s an ag issue,” she said.
Some important ballot initiatives went barely noticed, she said. Among them was the carbon tax debate in Washington State. The initiative failed on a 43-56 vote, but “it was an intense fight,” she said. Washington, as well as Oregon, also considered soda taxes during the midterms.