THE VINE SEPTEMBER 9, 2009
Now that Chris Dodd has decided to keep his chairmanship of the Senate banking committee, it looks like Tom Harkin will leave his agriculture post to go take Ted Kennedy's former spot atop the HELP committee. To the dismay of a lot of food-policy reformers, this means the more conservative Blanche Lincoln of Arkansas will be next in line for the Ag Committee gavel (there are more senior members on that committee, but they all have other, more powerful chairmanships already).
It's not unreasonable to ask if this will really make a big difference as far as agricultural policy's concerned. After all, Harkin was a corn man from Iowa who always had a kind word for Monsanto; the farm bill during his tenure was as subsidy-laden as ever, and, more recently, he was praising House Ag Chair Collin Peterson's extortionist moves on climate-change legislation, even suggesting that Peterson didn't go far enough in his attempts to immunize farmers from the effects of the bill. How much worse could Lincoln be?
But in fairness, Harkin was quite strong in several areas of farm policy. He's long attempted to set stricter income and payment limits on agriculture subsidies. He's been a champion of many of the environmental-stewardship programs within the farm bill. And he's a reformer on childhood-nutrition issues—he was a key player trying to put limits (if not an outright ban) on junk food in the current school-lunch reauthorization bill, and some school-lunch reformers are now quietly expressing dismay that Harkin vacating the Ag chair will mean the loss of their main partner in reform. He wasn't necessarily a champion of sustainable agriculture, but he was a guy reformers could at least talk to—someone who cared about labor issues, who was passionate about health care, and brought more than a modicum of skepticism toward Big Food's interests. Along with Vermont's Patrick Leahy, he made up the left flank of the committee.
And what about Blanche Lincoln? Well, as Phil Brasher of the Des Moines Register puts it:
Lincoln is as vigorous a proponent for large farms and livestock interests (think Arkansas-based Tyson Foods) as there is in Congress. Pair her with the panel’s senior Republican, Saxby Chambliss of Georgia, and you have a powerful one-two punch for the southern perspective on agricultural policy.
Let’s spell out what that could mean. More leniency on Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs). No bans on non-therapeutic use of antibiotics in livestock. No cleanups for manure lagoons. More rice and cotton subsidies. And, by the way, Lincoln thinks limiting payments to even the largest farms is a rotten idea. Meanwhile, since the Agriculture Committee is likely to play a key role in marking up climate legislation, it's worth considering her views on that front. Here’s ag reporter Chris Clayton:
Lincoln also likely is going to be more skeptical of climate legislation because it may offer little benefit for rice growers or producers of other southern crops. She was quoted in mid-August saying Congress should just focus on a renewable-energy bill and drop the cap-and-trade emissions plan.
Not only that, but Lincoln's currently facing a tough re-election race in 2010, giving her incentive to move even further to the right. Is it possible that Lincoln as Ag chair could become an "advocate" for the climate bill she'll play a role in crafting (after extracting major concessions, of course), the way Peterson did in the House? Possibly. But given that both climate change and childhood nutrition are two major priorities for the administration, the White House can't be too happy with Lincoln having her fingerprints all over these bills (though administration officials were reportedly involved in working to keep Dodd at Banking, which set off this whole mess).
Granted, there's always the possibility that Lincoln could be convinced to take a lesser post—some energy subcommittee chair, perhaps?—so that a team player, like Michigan's Debbie Stabenow, could head up the Ag Committee. But there's no indication something like that will happen. At this point, about the only upside for farm policy is that Lincoln may not last past 2010 (many observers expect her to lose her race this year), and given that the farm bill's not up for renewal until 2012, she may not be able to do any damage there.