Plowing New Ground or Back to the Future?

January 3, 2009

By: Reece Langley
VP, Government Affairs,
USA Rice Federation

Imagine a youthful Democrat with rock-star qualities overcoming the odds to capture his party’s nomination and go on to succeed President Bush, whose sky-high popularity had plummeted in an economic downturn.

Imagine a Democratic Congress at or near full strength, with 57 Democratic Senators and 258 Democratic Congressmen.

Think of the President as he begins his administration “with elaborate promises and high expectations,” with an “ambitious agenda predicated on the premise that the election signaled the voter’s demand for change and that, with the Democrats in control of the presidency and both houses of Congress, the era of gridlock is over.”

His policy agenda boldly includes stimulating the economy, a middle-class tax cut, and health care reform.

All of this is in addition to a loaded agenda that includes a controversial left-over trade deal, efforts by some in Congress to overturn biofuels mandates, pent-up demand for environmental legislation, and talk about USDA reorganization.

Welcome to… 1993. Now, don’t be hard on yourself if you guessed 2009 because the same thing can be written about next year (though the total number of House Democrats may be off by one if current leads hold in still undecided races.)

So, besides being uncanny, what’s the significance?

If you are a Republican, it may be an elixir, given what unfolded in November 1994. If you are a Democrat, it may be an important caveat for the same reason. But if you are merely a citizen affected by what happens in Washington, it could be a looking glass.

Consider three big-ticket items potentially affecting U.S. farmers and ranchers in the future: budget cuts, a trade deal, and costly new environmental regulations.

If it’s back to the future, we know the outcome. The 103rd Congress passed a reconciliation bill that included deep cuts to agriculture, including outright elimination of some programs. The same Congress approved the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). But, despite the super majorities in both chambers, Congress was unable to pass costly and ineffective environmental legislation, including amendments to the Clean Water Act.

So, is the past prologue? Can we expect budget reconciliation with deep cuts to agriculture? How about approval next year of a Doha Round agreement predicated on last-ditch efforts by the departing Bush Administration to bag a deal even if it’s a bad one? Can we expect to escape a slew of new regulations?

To answer these questions, think of the 103rd Congress.

Two of the things President Clinton is still known for are the deficit reduction bill and NAFTA.

The problem is that is not the legacy President Clinton had in mind.

Remember health care reform, economic stimulus, and middle class tax cuts – key components of the Clinton economic doctrine – that all went by the wayside?

Reconciliation and NAFTA, along with a few, intervening hot-button gun and social issues, burned up the President’s time and political capital, divided Democrats in Congress, and confused the main theme of the Clinton Presidency. And overzealous environmental legislation scared off as many Democrats as Republicans.

In fact, it took a Republican-run Congress to shut down the government to put President Clinton back in the saddle.

President Lyndon Johnson accurately observed the time-constraints on a successful presidency, noting, “I keep hitting hard because this honeymoon won’t last. Every day I lose a little more political capital.”

Budget cuts, a controversial trade deal, and ineffective environmental regulations – all very divisive – are not the platform that President-Elect Obama ran on.

And, no doubt, the incoming President aspires to a much greater legacy.

Of course, in a town where the unexpected can be expected whenever Congress is in session, we must be vigilant and always prepared for the worst to unfold. After all, pay limits has become a perennial target for some.

But with the hard lessons of 1993 learned, focusing on a positive agenda that unites Democrats while bringing Republicans on board makes a lot more sense.

As the 111th Congress convenes in January, the USA Rice Federation will be focused on educating new Members of Congress and the new administration about the U.S rice industry and its priorities, which include ensuring USDA implements farm bill programs according to Congressional intent, agriculture is protected in a possible budget reconciliation process, any potential WTO Doha Round trade agreement is beneficial for our industry, and advancing the opportunity for open and expanded trade with Cuba.

USA Rice continues to protect and promote the industry’s interests on a daily basis in Washington and the strong grassroots support of our members is what makes our efforts most effective.