Beware the Centrist Democrat

Be careful what you wish for. Democrats and their supporters might do well to pause in their euphoria over the Nov. 7 elections and take heed of the above advice. I for one as a populist found myself not particularly thrilled with the way the Democrats were gaining decided majority control in the House and a tenuous edge in the Senate.

Watching many Democrats rush to fill the "centrist" vacuum left by the neocon Republican desire to please its base left me with the uncomfortable feeling that compromise legislation in conjunction with threats of presidential vetoes and efforts to favorably position themselves in the 2008 elections will leave us with only token progressive legislation during the next two years.

If there is one saving grace concerning the recent elections relative to the Democrats it is the fact that, assuming the current elected lineups in the House and Senate hold, a significant handful of mostly genuine liberal members of the party will be taking control of important committees.

For example, Wisconsin's David Obey will be chairing the Appropriations Committee, responsible for funding federal programs and agencies. Obey, onetime chairman of the committee when Democrats were last in power, is an old-fashioned labor Democrat with interests in education, health-research funding, help for family dairy farmers rather than big agribusiness and is expected to strongly defend the Appropriations Committee's power from executive branch encroachment.

In the Senate, Pat Leahy of Vermont would become the Judiciary Committee chair; Hawaii's Dan Inouye would take the reins of the Commerce Committee; Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts would inherit the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee; and Jeff Bingaman of New Mexico would run the Energy and Natural Resources panel.

Relative to trade issues, Rep. Charles Rangel from New York will assuredly be the new chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee and will likely push for more labor and environmental language provisions in the nation's various trade agreements. He has, however, also indicated that he favors extending Trade Promotion Authority, although his Democrat colleagues will likely seek "sweeteners" from the White House for any such extension.

All these chairmanships and, of course, their committees will undoubtedly impact family farmers and rural America. None, however, will have more of a profound influence than the House and Senate agricultural committees. While many of the committees' sub-committee chairs remain in doubt, the chairmanship of the committees are clear.

In the House the new Ag Committee chairman will be Collin Peterson from Minnesota. In the Senate, the likely Ag Committee leader would be Sen. Tom Harkin from Iowa.

With talk of drafting a new Farm Bill it will be crucial to see how each of these chairman will press for new progressive farm legislation that addresses agriculture's two fundamental issues -- a fair price for farm products and increasing concentration of food processors. Each committee has an opportunity to wean themselves from the farm policies of the past that keep making the same mistakes but are always calling it "new policy."

Rather than buying into farm legislation posed by corporate agribusiness and its allies like the American Farm Bureau Federation and the traditional commodity groups, the two ag legislative committees might seriously consider hearing testimony from George Naylor, the Iowa farmer who is president of the National Family Farm Coalition -- a coalition of 22 grassroots farm organizations. Naylor emphasizes that what is desperately needed is a new farm policy proposal to create a sustainable farm and food system.

The coalition's farm proposal, called the Food from Family Farms Act, would improve the environment, create new economic opportunities in rural America, and support similar aspirations in every other country on our beautiful planet. Unlike the current farm policy, provisions in the Food from Family Farms Act, predicated on the principle of food sovereignty, will build good will among our trading partners and give them a chance for sustainable economic development.

Other main features of the Food from Family Farms Act includes a price support system, food security reserves, and conservation set-asides with full planting flexibility, which would work together to guarantee prices that reflect the true cost of production.

The Food from Family Farms Act encourages such a transition through full implementation of the Conservation Security Program, offering incentives on working lands for more conserving crops and practices which fit well with diversified family farming, bio-energy and local food production. As Naylor stresses, a balanced family farm system will require less fossil fuel and give opportunities for farmers to become producers of clean renewable energy.

"The goal of food, farm, and trade policy should be a globally sustainable and adequate supply of wholesome food at affordable prices. A family farm system is the most effective means to provide food quality and safety, diversity of production, equitable social and economic opportunity, and preservation of land, water, and bio-diversity," he said.

By controlling both chambers, the committees will more than likely focus on conservation and nutrition issues, farm program payment cuts, a push for a mandated animal identification system, a focus on food safety issues, animal welfare issues, country-of-origin labeling issues for meat and meat products, organic food issues, and a push to extend the Milk Income Loss Contract (MILC) payments, since Vermont's Sen. Leahy would be the second-highest-ranking Democrat on the Ag panel.

Peterson recently has stressed that a Democratic-controlled House, in exercising more oversight of the present administration's farm policy structure, will take a serious look at all USDA programs. Likewise, he has decried the committee's Republican leadership for refusing to hold hearings on vital credit, disaster, and dairy issues. Also, he has called for inclusion of a permanent disaster program so that farmers aren't forced to depend on highly politically motivated disaster programs and crop insurance programs that reap untold insurance company profits. at everyone else's expense.

Despite, however, the progressiveness of such committee's leadership there still remains the shadow of many of the new middle-of-the-road Democrats who, if their past gives us any clue to their future actions, will be listening more to the voices (and money) of their corporate paymasters than that of their constituents.

Consequently, in the next two years we may well witness not only an epic battle between the White House and Capitol Hill, but also one for the soul of the Democratic Party. A battle that can be characterized as being one between these new "centrist" Democrats intent on getting re-elected and those Democrats who have traditionally believed in the Jeffersonian values that proclaim working for the COMMON good is indeed the highest calling for a public servant.

A.V. Krebs publishes the online newsletter, The Agribusiness Examiner, email He is author of The Corporate Reapers: The Book of Agribusiness.

From The Progressive Populist, December 1, 2006

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