Just before midnight Nov. 2, the empty Guinness cans in my kitchen sink rattled.
Two (of the three; there would be more later) fell. The clatter wasn’t an earthquake. It was the nation moving, again, farther to the right.
The smart money saw it coming. Its size, however, was stunning.
By noon Nov. 3, President Bush was on his way to becoming the first presidential candidate since 1988 to win a majority of the popular vote.
Republicans, too, were adding to their previously slim House and Senate majorities.
The price of a win. The GOP victories carry big consequences for farmers and ranchers; most will cost the nation’s food producers dearly – and soon.
First, the thumping defeat of Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D., by White House-financed John Thune – who spent the last two years lobbying for meatpackers – means the 2002 Farm Bill’s mandatory country of origin labeling is a bigger lame duck than Daschle.
Lame duck? More like dead duck.
Despite overwhelming consumer support for mandatory COOL on fruits, vegetables, nuts, fish and red meat, House maneuvering last year kept it from Sept. 2004 enactment.
Bipartisan Senate support, however – stitched together by Daschle – kept it on life support.
With Daschle gone, so goes COOL, one of the simplest, best tools farmers and ranchers had to fight the continuing takeover of agriculture by agribusiness.
Another loss. But Daschle and COOL are just two of ag’s losers Nov. 2.
A third was Charlie Stenholm, the ranking Democrat of the House Ag Committee.
A west Texas cotton farmer and 24-year member of the Ag Committee, Stenholm lost to Republican colleague Randy Neugebaur, a 15-month veteran of the House.
The rookie walloped the old pro after House Majority Leader Tom “The Hammer” DeLay orchestrated a statewide gerrymandering that delivered Stenholm’s crushing, 18-point drubbing.
Who owns who. The twin defeats of Daschle and Stenholm means 50 years of Congressional ag stewardship was lost to purely partisan politics: Thune owes the White House, which poured millions into his winning campaign, not South Dakota farmers and ranchers; Neugebaur owes The Hammer, not west Texas growers.
“Who now in either the House or the Senate will wake up every morning thinking about agriculture and how they can fit it into the overall legislative agenda?” asks one 20-year Washington ag operative.
“No one,” he answers gloomily.
“Farmers and ranchers,” he adds, “took a massive hit Tuesday. Love ‘em or hate ‘em, real leaders like Bob Dole, Tom Daschle and Charlie Stenholm stood up and made sure agriculture was at the center of every debate. That won’t happen now, especially if it means you’ll be targeted for defeat.”
A new leader. That will become crystal clear when the 109th Congress convenes in January. Inside skinny now has Saxby Chambliss – that’s right, Saxby Chambliss – leading the Senate Ag Committee because it current boss, Thad Cochran, will move to chair the Appropriations Committee.
Chambliss, in his first term, is a cut-throat partisan who has never met a Democrat he didn’t dislike.
To date, his greatest claim to fame is his 2002 mauling of triple amputee Sen. Max Cleland in what most political handicappers consider the dirtiest Senate campaign ever.
What’s coming. Additionally, a likely eight- to 10-vote GOP majority in the Senate virtually guarantees the Senate Ag Committee will become a pawn of the White House and Senate leadership to deliver what everyone in Washington knows is coming next year: deep ag budget cuts and approval of the sugar-hammering Central American Free Trade Agreement.
The CAFTA vote will open the door (“Hey, we’ve already done it with sugar in CAFTA and with beef in the Australian trade deal”) to other farm concessions in ongoing World Trade Organization talks.
Cotton and foreign food aid are the first likely victims.
Budget cuts. It also means that when the White House moves – and it will – to make some temporary tax cuts, like the $50-billion-a-year inheritance tax, permanent, other programs will need to be buried.
Budget watchers expect USDA food and farm programs to be clipped several billion next year with even bigger cuts for the out-years.
And that’s before factoring in $75 billion more for Iraq.
(Alan Guebert’s Farm and Food File is published weekly in more than 75 newspapers in North America. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.)