Last month the 113th Congress was gaveled into order leaving behind one of the most polarized and unproductive Congressional sessions in modern history. The 112th Congress ended its least-productive year after passing only 80 bills — fewer bills than any other session since records began being kept in 1947. Now, with the power of the gavel and the New Year, a new Congress has begun.
The balance of power remains the same. The electorate has again chosen to send to Washington, D.C., a divided government. The House of Representatives remains controlled by Republicans and the Senate and White House remain under the control of Democrats. In the 2012 election, the GOP (Republicans) lost a total of 10 seats in the two legislative bodies (two in the Senate and eight in the House). While the pickup of eight seats in the House by the Democrats is not enough to tip the balance of power, it does narrow the margin of votes held by Republicans.
Speaker of the House John Boehner, who has had a difficult time controlling his rank and file members, will only have a 16 vote buffer for a simple majority. In other words, if the Speaker loses 16 votes from his caucus the GOP will not be able to pass legislation without support from the Democrats. An example of this dynamic played out with the last vote of the 112th Congress when 85 Republicans joined 172 Democrats to pass an agreement that avoided the fiscal cliff. Prior to that vote, Speaker Boehner was not able to get his Republican members to come together and pass their own version of the eventual bill.
While the balance of power remains the same, small changes in the composition of the bodies, such as the inclusion of new members, and with eyes toward the next election, Congress is primed for another polarizing session. The House of Representatives of the 113th Congress will have 84 new faces walking its halls (including three new Arizona members and 14 new California members). The United States Senate will see 13 new senators for the new congress, including the new junior senator from Arizona, Jeff Flake.
Difficult discussions on spending, taxes, immigration, and gun control are among the many critical decisions that Congress faces with hard negotiation ahead and likely compromise from all sides necessary before solutions are found. The political ideology and willingness to compromise from these 97 new members may well determine the success of this new Congress. The committee assignments of these new members will play a pivotal role in the debates in this Congress, especially as they relate to issues of importance to Western Growers members.
The leadership of the House Agriculture Committee remains intact with Chairman Frank Lucas (R-OK) and Ranking Member Collin Peterson (D-MN) staying put. Joining Chairman Lucas will be at least eight new Republican members, including Congressman Jeff Denham (CA-19) and Congressman Doug LaMalfa (CA-1). Joining Ranking Member Peterson and the Democrats on the Committee will be four new members, including Gloria Negrete McLeod (CA-35). The influx of new California members on the Agriculture Committee could play a critical role as the committee seeks to create a new Farm Bill. House Appropriations will also see a new California member with Rep. David Valadao (CA21-R) joining its ranks. The former chairman of the Agriculture Committee, Bob Goodlatte of Virginia, takes over as House Judiciary Committee chairman and his experience with production agriculture and agricultural processing may encourage his caucus to support an ag solution to immigration issues.
The Senate has yet to release its complete committee roster for the 113th Congress. However, one change has already sent ripples through agriculture. While the chairmanship will remain under the control of Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-MN), a strong specialty crop proponent, the committee will have a new Ranking Member, with Senator Thad Cochran (R-MS) taking over. The presence of a new Ranking Member will certainly play a key role as the Senate considers new Farm Bill legislation. Sen. Cochran replaces Sen. Pat Roberts of Kansas, who worked very well with Sen. Stabenow to pass a specialty crop-friendly Farm Bill out of committee and through the Senate last year. At the very least, Sen. Cochran represents a bit of an unknown for the specialty crop industry. He is known better as a proponent for the program crops.
The 113th Congress will face many challenges in the weeks and months to come. They will have to quickly settle in to tackle enormous bills. First and foremost, during late February and March, the Congress is expected to address the sequestration cuts, the debt limit, and the appropriations of the federal government. This will be a continuation of the fights Republicans and Democrats had in 2011 and 2012, but hopefully with new faces and after the fiscal cliff debacle — and with no presidential election looming — Congress can work in a quieter, more methodical and less dramatic manner to reach agreements to effectively tackle these problems. Given all the delays and fighting during the last Congress, there is a backlog of problems so it is expected that 2013 will be a very busy year. Indeed, after the March debt ceiling and sequestration hurdle, Congress is likely to quickly see legislation on immigration, gun control, and tax reform all within a short time frame. The million dollar question: Will the 97 new members of Congress be able to help break the gridlock of partisan politics or will much of the same prevail?
As the year progresses, we will update you electronically via Spotlight and in this magazine on these and other important issues.
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