As we ring in the New Year we will be welcoming a new Congress to Washington. As all of you know that Congress will look very different in the House of Representatives than what was in place after the 2016 election, as Democrats are in control.
Democrats flipped 40 seats—the fourth largest total of seats to flip since World War II. In the Senate, the Republicans expanded their majority by two seats. In our four home states of Arizona, California, Colorado and New Mexico, Democrats picked up 10 House seats and a Senate seat (four state tally: Senators: 6 Democrats – 2 Republicans; House: 58 Democrats – 14 Republicans).
What can we expect in the next Congress with these changes? Clearly the administration can expect significantly more oversight than it has had before. Executive branch-driven policy will be more aggressively challenged; regulatory rollback efforts will be challenged. Discussions over budget priorities will be contentious.
However, an area of compromise might be infrastructure. A potential area of progress could be immigration. An area of continuing upheaval is likely to be trade policy.
Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-OR), likely to chair the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee when Democrats assume the House majority, has a goal: producing a major infrastructure bill providing $500 billion for highways and transit, plus additional funding for airports and water projects. Likely Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA), in outlining Democrats objectives next year, said: “We will deliver a transformational investment in America’s infrastructure to create more good-paying jobs, rebuilding our roads, bridges, schools, water systems, broadband networks…housing and beyond.”
President Trump ran for election on infrastructure and tried to push it last year. This could be a major area to explore that could bring bipartisanship.
With respect to infrastructure, Western Growers obviously supports repairing bridges and roads, but we will also explore some policy areas. For example, the lack of qualified drivers is a chronic issue for our industry so we may look at short term solutions around allowing more truck drivers at age 18. We will also take this opportunity to push for investments in Western water infrastructure necessary to meet current and future demands. Our existing water infrastructure is aging and in need of rehabilitation. We need new water storage in order to adapt to a changing hydrology and develop usable and sustainable supplies to meet growing demands. We need to also address conveyance in any package. Failing to improve infrastructure and expand useable supplies will inevitably result in more conflict as pressure grows to “solve” urban and environmental water problems by taking water from agriculture. Funding must consist of an expanded toolbox of loan programs that can finance projects at lower cost and innovative authorizations for public-private projects, as well as traditional federal grant funding. Beyond funding, we must also streamline the permitting process and realign regulatory agencies so that decisions on projects can be accomplished in a timely manner (thus allowing construction to be expedited) as well as ensuring that water management policies improve.
The next Congress may also offer an opportunity around immigration. As we all know, the fate of DACA kids is up in the air and moving through the courts. In 2019, the Supreme Court is expected to hear and decide on a case on the topic, which will likely force Congress to act on the Dreamers. There is no consensus on what a package might look like. Many Democrats may want to use this as a spring board to comprehensive immigration reform. Hardline Republicans in Congress and within the administration have for years been pushing for a package to include additional enforcement measures such as increased funding for detention facilities, more ICE funding, mandatory E-Verify, and even inclusion of proposals to reduce future legal immigration levels in exchange for helping Dreamers.
For our sector, an immigration deal must not only provide a new and better guest worker program, but we also must deal with the workforce we have in the United States already. We will see if there is room for us as part of a package.
Finally, 2019 will be a busy year on trade. The President came into office promising to shake things up on trade and he has certainly done that. To date, the President ended U.S. participation in Trans-Pacific Partnership (the other 11 countries in the deal completed the agreement, which goes into effect Jan. 1, 2019). The President promised to start negotiations with Mexico and Canada on NAFTA 2.0 and two years later we appear to have a deal in place pending ratification. Congress will debate ratification in the spring of 2019. The President has aggressively used U.S. trade laws to punish China as well as other countries for ‘unfair trade’ practices. China and other major trading partners have retaliated in kind, and we hope that during 2019 we are able to make progress in rebalancing trade or export markets will remain problematic. Finally, the President promised new bilateral trade deals and negotiations will start in 2019 with Japan, the European Union and the United Kingdom. It is likely these negotiations will take at least 18 months to complete.
To say the least, it should be an interesting year in DC!