WASHINGTON — Tuesday’s Republican landslide will change the political landscape on Capitol Hill as the produce industry fights for immigration reform, Child Nutrition Act reauthorization, trade access and other legislative reforms in 2015.
While some election results still are not final, Republicans in the House gained at least 13 seats, handing them a historic majority, and took control of the Senate by picking up at least seven seats.
“There were several positive outcomes from the election,” said Matt McInerney, Western Growers executive vice president.
“A Republican-led Congress will work with business to strengthen the economy which will help our produce industry. We can now expect action on tax reform and trade such as passage of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, among other business-related issues,” he said.
One thing for certain is the GOP takeover of the Senate changes the makeup of the Senate Agriculture Committee, with Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-MI) stepping aside as chair of the powerful committee next year.
She may be replaced by Sen. Pat Roberts (R-KS), who narrowly won his reelection bid, though committee leaderships won’t be finalized for a few weeks. There’s also speculation Stabenow may move off the committee altogether and take a seat on the Senate Budget Committee. The committee will further change when three members — Sens. Tom Harkin (D-IA), Mike Johanns (R-NE) and Saxby Chambliss (R-GA) — retire and open more spots for Republicans.
On the House side, House Agriculture Committee Chair Frank Lucas (R-OK) steps down under House GOP term-limit rules and Rep. Michael Conaway (R-TX) appears a leading candidate for chairmanship.
The good news is that many of the members the United Fresh Produce Association supported are coming back, although Rep. Jim Costa (D-CA), a longtime champion for the produce industry, is battling for his political future in a too-close-to-call race against Republican challenger Johnny Tacherra, said Robert Guenther, United Fresh’s public policy vice president.
“That’s one member we’d be certainly disappointed if he lost,” he said.
With the House and the Senate controlled by Republicans, Guenther says it’s time for Congress to act on immigration reform.
“The way I look at it, there’s no more excuses at this point,” he said, referring to complaints the party split between the House and Senate delayed action on immigration reform. United Fresh plans to make immigration reform a top priority in 2015 and hopes the administration and House and Senate leadership can hammer out a compromise.
McInerney agreed: “As for immigration reform, with all due respect to the president, the speaker and the new Senate majority leader, it’s well past time to rebuild the bridge to compromise.”
“I don’t believe it is impossible to reach a legislative and bipartisan agreement on immigration reform. If border security is the issue that needs to be tackled first, then tackle it,” he said, insisting that border security and immigration reform should not be mutually exclusive.
If President Obama opts to bypass Congress and move on immigration reform through executive action, that could change the dynamics on Capitol Hill.
House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) already warned Obama on Nov. 6 against moving independently. “I believe that if the president continues to act on his own, he is going to poison the well,” Boehner said. ”When you play with matches, you take the risk of burning yourself, and he’s going to burn himself if he continues to go down this path.”
Another legislation priority for 2015 is the reauthorization of the Child Nutrition Act, which expires next summer.
Guenther acknowledges it will incumbent on the produce industry to educate new and existing members of Congress on the importance of a healthy food program for school kids and to the industry in a way to cut through some of the polarized politics on the issue. The produce industry has been busy in recent months trying to beat back attempts led by the School Nutrition Association to delay implementing new nutrition standards in schools.
Other priorities include accelerating trade agreements, fixing highway legislation and enacting tax reforms.
Congress is likely to be watching implementation of the Food Safety Modernization Act, especially when the final regulations are issued, and could revisit the court-ordered timeline if necessary, Guenther suggested.
Other sources say the new leaders in the Senate may step up oversight of government programs, including FDA.