WASHINGTON -- While the election left Republicans in control of writing a new farm policy, their tenuous hold on Congress probably deprives them of the ability to push through the same major changes in law they made four years ago.
"There was no mandate anywhere" as a result of the election, said Bruce Babcock, an Iowa State University economist.
The Senate could be split 50-50 depending, on the outcome of a Washington state race, although Republicans will maintain control regardless of who is the next president.
In the House, the GOP led 220-211, with two races still too close to call. There are two independents, one aligned with each party.
"What it means is that legislation isn't going to pass unless you have support of moderate Democrats and moderate Republicans," said Mary Kay Thatcher, lobbyist for the American Farm Bureau Federation.
Voters in rural congressional districts in farm states generally favored Republican George W. Bush, but neither Bush nor Vice President Al Gore made much of an issue of farm policy during the campaigns.
The 1996 farm law, due to expire in 2002, was designed to phase out government support programs. A sharp decline in commodity prices two years ago, however, made that politically untenable. Now, lawmakers and farm groups are instead looking for ways to provide new forms of income assistance to producers.
The price decline led Congress to approve billions in special farm assistance for three years in a row. As a result, direct government payments to farmers are expected to exceed $23 billion this year, three times the 1996 level.
At that time, Republicans controlled the House by a 230-204 margin, but still needed Democratic support to get the bill passed. That was especially true in the Senate, where GOP senators had to cut a deal with the Agriculture Committee's senior Democrat, Patrick Leahy of Vermont, to overcome a threatened filibuster by the minority leader, Tom Daschle of South Dakota, and other Midwest Democrats.
The chairmen of the House and Senate agriculture committees plan hearings on farm policy next year.
"Right away, we'll begin the process of having the hearings, but realistically it takes a year or two to write a farm bill. It doesn't happen quickly," said Andy Fisher, a Senate Agriculture Committee spokesman.
The House committee chairman, Republican Rep. Larry Combest of Texas, says he will even consider revising the 1996 law early next year to provide some kind of new subsidy program for farmers.
Lawmakers' biggest challenge may be getting farm organizations to agree on what they want Congress to do. Combest has told them he wants recommendations with specific numbers and formulas.
The makeup of the House and Senate committees will not change much next year, although two Republican subcommittee chairmen on the House panel are retiring: Tom Ewing of Illinois and Bill Barrett of Nebraska.
At least three new House members, all Republicans, have agriculture backgrounds: Dennis Rehberg, a rancher and former lieutenant governor in Montana; Sam Graves, a Missouri state senator and farmer; and Adam Putnam, a citrus and cattle producer in Florida.
Sen. Richard Lugar, R-Ind., who was easily re-elected last week, will remain chair of the Senate Agriculture Committee.
If Bush wins the presidency, his vice president, Dick Cheney, would cast deciding votes in the Senate. If Gore wins the White House, his running mate, Joe Lieberman of Connecticut, would resign his Senate seat and the state's GOP governor would pick a Republican to replace him, giving the GOP at least 51 seats.
On the Net: House Agriculture Committee: http://www.house.gov/agriculture
Senate Agriculture Committee:
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