CHICAGO — Voters and their political parties are moving further to the right and further to the left, away from the center, and that may not be the best news for U.S. agriculture or for farmers.
“I tend to believe not much is going to happen in Congress in the next two years,” said Mary Kay Thatcher, senior lead for federal government relations at Syngenta.
Thatcher moved to Syngenta after working for 31 years for the American Farm Bureau Federation, where she worked for many years as a lobbyist.
Part of the reason for the gridlock is the close margins in both the House and the Senate.
Democrats hold a slim majority in the Senate and while Republicans hold a larger majority than that in the House, Thatcher noted that the new speaker, possibly Kevin McCarthy, still will need to hold onto every vote.
“He can lose four Republicans before he needs to start picking up Democratic votes. If he loses five, he’s going to struggle a bit. So, he, too, is going to have to find a way to make sure he works across the aisle,” Thatcher said.
A factor that poses a bigger threat to agriculture and ag interests, from the farm bill front to government agencies, is that rural America is getting more red as voters reject moderate candidates.
“Rural America continues to get redder and redder and fewer and fewer Democrats,” Thatcher said.
The Bloomberg CityLab Congressional Density Index divides the population of congressional districts into six separate classes — pure urban, urban-suburban, dense surburban, sparse suburban, rural-suburban mix and pure rural.
“When you get over to the ‘pure rural’ category, there are only 70 members of the House that they consider ‘pure rural’ members of the House. Of those 70 members before these midterm elections, there were eight Democrats and 62 Republicans. After this election, that eight fell to five,” Thatcher said.
“We lost three, I think, really good moderate Democrats. That’s not to say that the people who beat them aren’t good, too, but three Democrats.”
While GOP voters in rural areas may cheer that news, Thatcher said that the loss of moderate Democrats who represent rural areas can have consequences for ag interests, especially when it comes to dealing with government agencies like the Environmental Protection Agency.
“If EPA is doing something crazy and I want to see if I can stop it, it doesn’t do me a whole lot of good to get a letter from 25 Republican House members. It does me a lot better if I can find a House Democrat who’s willing to put their neck on the line and say, ‘hey, this is something I need,’” she said.
“And now I’m down to five pure rural Democrats. Five. It makes a big difference.”
‘Hold them Accountable’
With less than a month left in his tenure as the CEO of the National Corn Growers Association, Jon Doggett, who has been with NCGA for over 20 years, urged audience members at the seed industry event, as well as others in agriculture, to focus on elected lawmakers when it comes to matters of policy.
He said that lawmakers find it easy to blame appointed leaders, like the heads of the various government agencies, for problems with policy.
“It is too easy to go ahead and demagogue against unelected bureaucrats rather than go ahead and do what Congress needs to do in order to solve some problems, like spending bills and bills that govern how we’re going to deal with the waters of this country,” he said. “Those are the things we need to get done and we’re not getting them done.”
Doggett warned that the inaction by members of Congress on non-ag issues could be a harbinger of things to come for the farm bill and other major ag-related legislation.
“The House and Senate ag committees are the last bastion of bipartisanship in Washington, D.C. — and that is eroding,” he said.
“We all need to be worried about that because a Congress that can go ahead and blow off the deadlines for spending bills and not deal with really important things that affect millions of Americans — if they can get away with that, what are you going to do with a farm bill when things get more and more contentious?
“The problem is what happens when we get to the floor and we’ve not had a really good 10, 15 years here.”
Doggett added that voters need to follow up and hold the people they elect accountable.
“In order for us to deal with the policy initiatives that are important to all of us, we’re going to have to get the politics right,” he said.
“The problem isn’t Washington. Not a single member of Congress was born, raised, educated and spent their entire life in Washington. Not a single member of Congress.
“Who sent them there? We did. We need to quit letting them prey on our fears. We need to hold them accountable.”