As Western Growers convened its 90th Annual Meeting in San Diego in November, it once again lamented the lack of progress on immigration reform that has occurred since its previous meeting a year earlier. And no optimism could be found that the picture will be any different one year hence.
On the other hand, the lack of federal water legislation during this past year was accompanied by a note of optimism, as during the convention there appeared to be movement on the issue…or at least promise of such. In fact — though unlikely — the comments in this “Water Legislation” section below may be moot by the time this story is published, if the U.S. Senate truly acts in early December as some have indicated. And there is little Western Growers would like better than for this topic to be heading toward completion when this is being read. Prudence…and past history…force us to move forward as if this will not be a moot issue as you read this in mid-December.
Unfortunately, discussing comprehensives immigration reform is a much less risky topic. During the review of his year in office, outgoing Chairman Vic Smith opined that there was virtually no chance immigration reform would occur in 2016. Western Growers Senior Director of Federal Government Affairs Ken Barbic concurs with that assessment. He noted that 2016 will most likely be a year of building coalitions and jockeying for position for a potential run at immigration reform in 2017 when the United States has a new president and a new Congress. “The only way it escalates into action in 2016 is if there is some kind of precipitating event,” Barbic said.
He explained that outside events, such as the children at the border crisis in 2014 or the murder in San Francisco of a U.S. citizen by an undocumented person earlier this year, always have the potential of creating a situation where action becomes imminent because of public outcry. But even in those two headline-creating actions, comprehensive reform still sat on the sidelines. “It is almost impossible envisioning this getting done during an election year,” Barbic said.
There is just no compelling reason for Democrats and Republicans to come together at this point in time. Republicans, most notably conservative Republicans, have been singled out as blocking comprehensive reform that would have both border security and path to legalization provisions. While some Republicans, including the new Speaker of the House Paul Ryan, might see the value of taking this issue off the table for the November presidential elections, there is no reason for Democrats to give in on any of their major points during the election year. Compromise, which is rarely prevalent in Washington, D.C., won’t find much oxygen at all in 2016.
So what are the prospects in 2017?
Barbic said that largely depends on who wins the White House and the majorities in the Senate and House. Though many have doubted Donald Trump’s staying power, he continues to enjoy significant support even as the first primaries loom only weeks away. If he is the Republican nominee and wins, comprehensive reform is off the table for the foreseeable future. Trump continues to say he will deport any undocumented resident. While that might be impossible, it is hard to imagine he would pivot 180 degrees on this issue.
If another Republican gets the nomination (Ben Carson, Marco Rubio, Jeb Bush), a clearer case can be made for action on immigration reform. Bush is clearly for it; Rubio has been for it in the recent past and would probably move toward a center-right position as the nominee of his party, and Carson is a complete unknown, as the famed surgeon has never operated in the political arena.
With Hillary Clinton all but already crowned as the Democrat’s nominee, it is highly likely that she will put achieving immigration reform very high on her “to-do list” as President. And Republicans might have a very good reason to go along. If Republicans do not win the White House in 2016, poor performance among Latinos may well be the reason. Barbic said the pragmatic Ryan may well want to rid himself, and the Republican Party, of this issue.
Of course, playing into the calculous will be the makeup of the House and the Senate. Barring unforeseen circumstances, the House will still be controlled by Republicans, though if Hillary Clinton is elected one would expect the majority to shrink. The Senate is up for grabs and in any event it will be very close to a 50/50 split. With nothing close to a filibuster-proof majority, the Senate might well be able to hash out a compromise on immigration reform. They’ve done it before and could do it again.
Federal Water Legislation
On early Monday morning, Nov. 9, Dennis Nuxoll, vice president of federal government affairs for Western Growers, told the group’s board of directors that California’s congressional delegation must present a united front if the state has any chance of being included in a federal water legislation package for western states. The concept was on the table for the entire year, and even before that, with lots of talk and not much action. Nuxoll said there were signs that something might get done by the Senate Water Committee shortly after the Thanksgiving recess. A day later that seemed even closer to reality as California Senator Dianne Feinstein spoke of the possibility.
On that same day, Nuxoll expressed optimism that the package would move forward, though he still put the odds at only 50/50. In Washington, D.C., however those are very good odds.
Part of Nuxoll’s optimism was tied to comments Sen. Feinstein made that very afternoon. Speaking to a reporter, she was quoted as saying: “We hope to have something that can go to markup — I think it’s next Friday (Nov. 20) — and then be included in the omnibus,” she said. “You see, for us, if we don’t catch the early flows of water, we lose them. So if you get a bill done in the spring, it’s too late to be able to hold the water that we need to hold.”
In a separate interview, Senate Energy and Natural Resources Chairwoman Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) confirmed that a markup is in the works for before Thanksgiving recess. While there are deep differences between the House and Senate version of water legislation, the House passed its measure, and action by the Senate would move this issue to conference, and presumably a compromise. Sen. Murkowski said that the key to success is creating a region-wide bill. While California lawmakers have had trouble coming up with a workable compromise, other states in the West have put forth provisions that they can support.
Nuxoll said that has led to the real possibility that if California doesn’t come up with a plan, it will be left out of the solution, with no guarantee a California-only bill will ever pass muster. Sen. Feinstein appears to understand this dynamic as she said: “We have worked and worked and worked… but at a certain point you’ve got to put it together and get it done, and we’re at that point.”
Of course, even if the Senate passes federal water legislation, there will be significant differences between the House and Senate bill. The House bill that passed (HR 2898) was very much supported by California agricultural interests. It basically shifts some water resources from protecting the environment to use by agriculture. It does so by modifying the Endangered Species Act and other environmental laws during period of water shortage.
The Senate bill is still being debated, but the California portion focuses more attention on using federal dollars for recycling, conservation efforts, desalination and storm water capture. Both bills, however, are expected to include some funds and provisions for expediting environmental studies for new storage facilities.
Nuxoll said the key is to get a bill out of committee and passed on the Senate floor so the work in conference can begin. While it is important to get this passed as quickly as possible so another year does not go by without action, it is also important to do so for fear that the predicted impact of the looming El Niño doesn’t stall progress. What has made this bill palatable at the present time is the extended drought. California’s four years of historic drought conditions has received lots of press but other western states are also in very dry conditions. The Pacific Northwest has been in drought for several years and the Colorado River states have been suffering with below normal rain for 14 of the last 17 years.
Attention spans are short and the public agreement for action could evaporate if the El Niño creates well-above average precipitation and flooding accompanies it.
“This is the perfect time for action and I am cautiously optimistic that it is going to happen,” said Nuxoll.