Maintaining hard-won gains may be best that cattle producers can hope for.
“A lot of things will be pushed, ‘over our dead bodies.’ That's what happens when the three-legged stool of legislation is controlled by one party,” predicts J. Burton Eller, National Cattlemen's Beef Association (NCBA) senior vice president of government affairs.
Speaking to attendees of last month's BEEF Quality Summit (BQS), Eller explained that NCBA and others continue to push for action from the current administration on issues ranging from finalization of trade agreements with Colombia, Panama and Korea, to promulgation of water and dust rules that are part of Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs).
Eller's not too optimistic about getting much pushed along. When it comes to trade, he says, “If you were another country, why would you want to negotiate trade policy with the current administration when you know a new one is coming in?”
Besides, Eller also points out there's what's known as the “midnight rule.” It allows a new Congress to revisit and change, if they'd like, any rules promulgated late in the previous administration.
Union and labor
So goes the optimism of many in the cattle business since the Nov. 4 election of Illinois Senator Barack Obama as 44th president of the U.S. Neither he nor his opponent, Sen. John McCain (R-AZ), indicated much knowledge about the agricultural industry during the campaign. Thus, most cattle producers figured the next four years to be tougher than the previous eight, no matter who was elected.
With Obama, though, a party that espouses more government, unionization and higher taxes as solutions to lots of problems, now holds sway in both the executive and legislative branches of federal government. Apparently the lone ace Republicans hold in reserve is enough Senate seats to filibuster if necessary on the most critical issues.
In this environment, it could well be the greatest victories will simply be preserving some of the legislation cattle producers have fought for in the past.
For instance, Eller says Obama has indicated he wants to re-open the North American Free Trade Agreement, ostensibly to add labor (union) requirements. According to Eller, Canada is eager for the opportunity, which would allow them to enrich their energy benefits. Mexico has indicated that if it's reopened, they'll simply walk away and negotiate a pact with Brazil. Keep in mind both Mexico and Canada are key trading partners for cattle and beef.
Expect labor and union issues to be integral to much of what Obama and the Democratic Congress address. Eller points out that unions raised $80 million during the last month of the presidential campaign to finance the ubiquitous Obama television presence heading into election day.
One bright spot cited by Eller is that Obama has mentioned the cap on estate taxes needs to be raised, though not eliminated. There's also not much hope that the tax breaks enacted during the Bush administration will be made permanent; they sunset next year.
For what it's worth, Eller also says the Obama folks have sought input from NCBA and the cattle industry during the transition.
“Equally important as who won the elections and what that means is how the game was played,” says Terry Stokes, NCBA chief executive officer.
He points to one state election in northeastern Colorado where an activist group ponied up $1.6 million to defeat a Republican candidate unsupportive of its agenda. “That's three times the amount of our out-of-pocket annual budget for our government affairs in Washington, D.C.,” Stokes says.
Similarly, the Humane Society of the U.S. provided $4.4 million of the $10 million spent in support of passing Proposition 2 in California. “That $4.4 million is half of NCBA's total annual budget,” Stokes says.
As you may know, Proposition 2, which 63.2% of voters favored, prohibits the confinement of farm animals — including chickens — in such a manner that they can't freely lie down, stand up, turn around and freely extend their limbs.
Stokes says these examples point to the need for cattle organizations to form coalitions with other groups that share common interests in particular issues. That might even mean joining up with groups traditionally regarded as adversaries, working together on areas of mutual agreement, and agreeing to disagree on other things.
As this election illustrated, special interest groups can amass too many resources for individuals and individual organizations to overcome.
“As we move forward, it's important that we're engaged in the process, that we can educate and provide solutions to Congress and the administration,” Stokes says. “Today, Congress is a reflection of your consumer.”