Former congressman: Divisive politics stalling progress

As Congress begins dickering over what to do with farm legislation while facing the recent failure of World Trade Organization negotiations, an increasing budget deficit, and a negative trade balance, an already onerous task becomes even more arduous because of partisan politics.

“The environment in Congress is the worst I've seen in my lifetime,” said former congressman Charlie Stenholm, now a government affairs consultant with a Washington, D.C., law firm.

Stenholm discussed prospects for the 2007 farm bill debate during his keynote address at the recent Texas Produce Conference in San Antonio, Texas.

As a consultant on agricultural issues, Stenholm will participate in his eighth farm bill debate as legislators begin drafting a 2007 bill early next year. He said Congress' task is to create a foundation for business to succeed and to support new business.

Stenholm, a charter member of the House Blue Dog Coalition, a fiscally conservative group of Democrats, was particularly critical of economic policies that created a massive federal deficit “to pay for tax cuts. I'm not opposed to properly-crafted tax cuts,” he said, “but you also have to cut spending. This is the first war where we cut taxes at the same time. This huge deficit bothers me.”

The numbers include:

In 1981, the U.S. deficit stood at $1 trillion with foreign loans accounting for 20 percent to 25 percent of the total. The ledger now shows an $8.4 trillion deficit with 50 percent owned by foreign investors.

“If we stay the course, we'll have an $11.5 trillion deficit in five years with two-thirds of the debt owned by foreign bankers,” he said.

That comes with a rising trade deficit, he said. “How long can a country continue with a huge trade deficit without hurting markets?” he asked.

Stenholm reflected on the 2002 farm bill that he and former congressman Larry Combest crafted. “It was not a perfect bill,” he said. That bill marked the first time in U.S. history that both the chairman and ranking member of the House Agriculture Committee came from the same state.

“We did not always agree,” Stenholm said, “but we were good friends.” He said he and Combest put partisanship aside to develop the best farm bill they could get. He doesn't see that kind of cooperation today.

He encourages individual farmers and farm groups to put aside any differences they might have to present a united front as debates begin. “We have only about 150,000 farmers producing 75 percent of our food and fiber,” he said. “So we have to build a coalition with others who believe that anyone who eats is involved in agriculture.”

Nutrition will be the keystone that holds disparate groups in place, he said.

“We have to resolve nutrition issues before we do anything else,” he said. “That's why food stamps are an essential part of any farm bill. (Nutrition) gets to the rest of the people.”

Stenholm said the food stamp program attracts a lot of criticism and suggests it should be managed efficiently. “Those who need them should get them; those who don't should not,” he said.

He said increased research for specialty crops should be a priority. “I don't like the term specialty crop,” he said. “My son and I grow cotton and we think cotton is pretty special. We need another title for fruit and vegetables but we also need more tax dollars for research to improve nutrition.”

He said universities should prioritize research efforts and use funds more efficiently.

Improved food nutrition, he said, “provides us an opportunity to gain standing in the world and the United States today has the lowest standing in its history.”

Stenholm said in 50 years the world population would require 50 percent more food than it needs today. “And we will have to produce more on fewer acres. We need biotechnology. It's still controversial but we need it.

“We also need cleaner and safer water, but standards must be based on science.”

He said energy will play a big role in the 2007 farm bill. “We have to be less dependent on foreign oil,” he said. “And it makes no sense that a company as large and responsible as BP would not check its pipeline (regularly).”

He said immigration also will be a contentious issue for Congress. “Until we come to grips with the notion that we have to have an identification system, we will not solve the immigration issue,” he said.

The ACLU doesn't like the idea because it impinges on individual rights, he said. He also said the far right (He singled out radio talk show host Rush Limbaugh.) also opposes an ID card.

He said failure of the DOHA Round of WTO negotiations is bad for agriculture. “We need to complete DOHA,” he said. “And we need government to stand shoulder to shoulder with farmers (to achieve fair trade).”

Stenholm said the most likely outcome for the farm bill is an Extension of the 2002 Food Security and Rural Investment Act. He anticipates a one-to-two year extension “with some modification. Energy and nutrition need tweaking.”

Extension is more likely because of the DOHA collapse, he said.

He said chances of passing an immigration reform bill before November is about 10 percent. He gives the same odds to getting a DOHA agreement and he's not optimistic about renewing trade promotion authority when it expires next summer.

He said if Congress does not pass a farm bill within the first eight months of 2007, it likely will not happen. “We get into 2008 presidential elections and not much gets done.”

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