The first of a three-part series.

While every election has the potential to impact the beef industry, this fall's election may prove particularly important. The federal treasury is awash in surplus, and many members of Congress want to use some of the money to cut taxes.

There's hope on the tax relief issue. The likely Democratic nominee, Al Gore, favors estate tax relief. Meanwhile, his likely Republican challenger, George W. Bush, says he wants the estate tax scrapped.

Probably second on the burner are trade barriers. Bush, Gore and many members of Congress favor freer trade. That could open new markets for American beef, particularly with China.

"Last year, we shipped about $50 million of beef products to China," says Dale Moore, executive director of legislative affairs for the National Cattlemen's Beef Association (NCBA). "We believe we could easily double that in the short term." And that, he estimates, could add roughly $9/head to the price of fed cattle.

So far, the election sounds like a done deal for cattle producers. Unfortunately, it's not. Politicians have a knack of clouding the waters in ways that keep ranchers and feeders up at night.

Take tax breaks. With a surplus of $200 billion expected for the current federal fiscal year, there should be plenty of cash for tax relief, but for whom? Congress could bypass agricultural tax breaks in favor of tax cuts that help larger blocks of voters. For example, Congress may decide there is more political payback by eliminating the marriage penalty, which taxes married couples at a higher rate than single taxpayers.

The competition for tax breaks will be intense. Numerous special interest groups are lined up at the trough. The result may be a free-for-all when the new Congress convenes.

There's also potential trouble on the free trade front. Organized labor and many American workers are uneasy about free trade. They see high paying manufacturing jobs slipping away to Mexico, China and a variety of other low-wage countries.

Congress is also considering a wealth of new spending programs. It's likely to pass some form of a multi-billion dollar public lands acquisition bill, which would allow the government to take ranches and other private property in any state for new parks and recreation projects.

"The government can't even manage what they've got," says Jason Campbell, NCBA public lands director. "There's a $12 billion to $15 billion backlog of federal land maintenance projects outstanding."

This measure is likely to pass in part because many Republican lawmakers, who might normally side with ranchers, favor the measure.

While these issues impact ranchers and feeders directly, there are secondary issues. The next administration could appoint as many as four new justices to the U.S. Supreme Court. In addition, the new president's fiscal policies will help determine inflation's future.

When the dust settles, the political landscape may look far different than it does today. The Republicans could retake the White House. The House of Representatives, where Republicans hold a slim majority, could turn Democratic. There is an outside chance that the Democrats could retake the Senate.

But, the big prize is the presidency. So far, both major party candidates have put themselves solidly behind America's ranchers and farmers in their campaign pronouncements. But, the devil is in the details. After all, it doesn't matter what the candidates say while they're trying to win votes. It only matters what they do after they win the election.

Next month: A look at the differences between presidential candidates on agricultural issues and the influence of political contributions on agricultural politics.

Doug McInnis is a business and political writer based in Casper, WY.

One of the fastest ways to improve a bottom line is to reduce taxes.

The number one goal is elimination of the estate tax. Even though the Taxpayer Relief Act of 1997 eased the estate tax burden somewhat, family-owned ranches and feedlots are still at risk. Among other things, the act raised the basic estate tax exemption from $600,000 to $1 million/spouse.

Critics say this doesn't go far enough. Over time, they say, inflation will eat away at the value of the exemption. And, in any case, the exemption is too small to cover the estate value of many ranches and feedlots.

"It doesn't take that large of a ranch or feedlot to reach the maximum exemption," says Dale Moore, the National Cattlemen's Beef Association's (NCBA) executive director of legislative affairs.

The coalition to jettison the estate tax is one of the largest ever assembled for a measure that would help the beef industry. In addition to NCBA, the Family Business Estate Tax Coalition has 65 member groups directly involved and 45 others that are helping on a less formal basis.

The group includes such political powerhouses as the National Association of Manufacturers and the National Federation of Independent Businesses. It also includes numerous, single-industry groups, such as the National Automobile Dealers Association, the National Beef Wholesalers and the American Sheep Industry Association.

"We took the issue of estate tax relief, which Congress had largely viewed as a tax break for the wealthy, and turned it into a family issue," says Moore. "That's turned many members of Congress around."

Here are some other tax relief fronts:

* Capital Gains. Capital gains taxes are levied on the profits when ranches or feedlots are sold. The tax can range as high as 20%. NCBA favors cuts in the capital gains tax because it will help keep family-owned ranches within the family.

* Improved tax tools for income management. NCBA wants a tax code provision that would allow farmers and ranchers to put up to 20% of their income into a tax-deferred account for up to five years. In good years, says Moore, ranchers can sock money into the account, drawing it out in a bad year.

* Full deductibility of health insurance premiums. Congress has scheduled full deductibility by 2003, but NCBA wants it accelerated.

George W. Bush: "Individuals, family partnerships or family corporations own 99 percent of U.S. farms and ranches. Estate taxes can destroy family-owned farms, ranches and small businesses, when the tax - which can be as high as 55 percent - forces farmers and ranchers to sell land, buildings or equipment to pay the government. I have put forward a plan that eliminates the estate tax so that farms, ranches and other small businesses can be passed intact from one generation to the next."

Al Gore: "Although I oppose the total elimination of estate taxes, I recognize that family farmers and ranchers sometimes find it difficult to pass their land along to the next generation. I understand their situation and am committed to seeing more fairness in our inheritance laws.

As president, I will support fiscally responsible measures to ease this burden even further, including additional increases in the amount of an estate exempt from taxation, so we can keep more families on the farm."