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Farming and the November 4 Elections

The father of the “Freedom to Farm” law, Pat Roberts of Kansas, is all but certain to chair the Senate Agriculture Committee in 2015 following a surprisingly large victory for reelection. Roberts defeated independent Greg Orman by nine points in a race that was regarded a toss-up for weeks.

Republicans won control of the Senate from Democrats in Tuesday’s midterm elections, aided by a sweep of pivotal races in farm states; Joni Ernst in Iowa and Tom Cotton in Arkansas in particular, along with Roberts. Ernst succeeds Democrat Tom Harkin, who retired. Cotton defeated two-term Democrat Mark Pryor, who chairs the appropriations subcommittee that oversees USDA, FDA, and CFTC.

A strong supporter of the crop insurance program, Roberts said during the campaign that he expects to take the Agriculture Committee. There is little sign of opposition among GOP senators, but the selections won’t become final for weeks. Thanks to his stint as House Agriculture Committee chairman while spearheading the 1996 farm law, Roberts would be the first lawmaker to be Agriculture chair in both chambers of Congress.

Mike Conaway of Texas, elected to his sixth term from central Texas, is expected to become chairman of the House Agriculture Committee. The current chairman, Frank Lucas of Oklahoma, is reaching the six-year limit set by House GOP rules. Conaway, like Roberts, is critical of the cost of food stamps. Collin Peterson of Minnesota, a key figure on dairy and sugar programs, was expected to return as the committee’s top Democrat.

Top issues for Roberts, however, would be reauthorization of the CFTC - seemingly stalled for this year - and child nutrition programs, which include school lunch. Roberts, like other farm-state lawmakers, says the Dodd-Frank financial reform law went too far on regulating futures markets. North Dakota Senator John Hoeven and Illinois Representative Rodney Davis say school lunch reforms from 2010 are burdensome and need to be reworked.

Congress is scheduled to meet for a brief lame-duck session after Veterans Day with the main objective to pass a government funding bill. It could be the only legislation to pass during the seven-day session. If so, farm-state attempts to derail EPA’s “waters of the United States” rule would have to wait until the new year unless leaders allow a prohibition as a rider on the bill.

Bob Stallman, president of the American Farm Bureau Federation, a driving force in the “ditch the rule” campaign, said the group will look for every opportunity to block the proposal. “We’ll take it anyway we can get it,” Stallman said on Election Day. “We’re not going to back off.”

State referendums to require labeling of foods made with GMOs failed for the third year in a row. The Colorado proposal was defeated by a 2-to-1 margin. Oregon’s Measure 92 failed by 1.2 points. Vermont legislators passed a GMO labeling law this spring, to take effect in 2016. It is being challenged in court by lawmakers. Congress is unlikely to act on GMO labeling bills this year so the issue is likely to return in 2015.

Voters in Maui County, Hawaii, passed an initiative that bans cultivation of GMO crops until a safety study can determine if they are safe. Monsanto has test plots on Maui.

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