With Democrats being thrust into power in the Senate, look for changes that could speed up the development of a new federal farm program.

With Vermont Sen. James Jeffords’ announcement last week that he was leaving the Republican party and registering as an Independent, the Democratic party suddenly found itself holding the majority of Senate seats.

This change in power makes Sen. Tom Daschle, (D-S.D.) the Senate majority leader, and seats Sen. Tom Harkin, (D-Iowa) as chair of the Senate ag committee. Both Senators have been strong critics of the 1996 “Freedom to Farm” law that shifted farm policy to more of a market-oriented approach.

The 1996 Farm Bill doesn’t expire until next year and the Senate Republicans were content to not rewrite it until then. However, many Senate Democrats want to overhaul it this year. House Republicans have already started their work on a new farm bill and House Agriculture Committee Chairman Larry Combest (R-Texas) said he hopes they will have a new bill ready by August.

Other key chairmanship changes and topics to keep an eye on include:

  • Sen. Kent Conrad, (D-N.D.) will become chair of the Senate budget committee.
  • Sen. Herb Kohl, (D-Wis.) will become chair of the Senate agricultural appropriations subcommittee.
  • Sen. Patrick Leahy, (D-Vt.) will become chairman of the Senate judiciary committee.
  • Harkin has said he supports “significant changes” in farm policy, government payments for producers who implement conservation practices and federal incentives for crop-based fuel additives such as ethanol.
  • The waters surrounding dairy compacts have become even more muddied. The Northeast Dairy Compact expires this fall unless Congress renews it. However, Sen. Jeffords’ defection from the GOP may have intensified the division between proponents and opponents of the bill that would renew the Northeast compact and create more compacts. And one of the biggest opponents of dairy compacts, Sen. Kohl, will now head the ag appropriations subcommittee. However, the judiciary committee, which has jurisdiction over dairy compacts and has a say about President Bush’s judicial nominations, will be headed by Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont. Because of the judicial nominations, Leahy could have an enormous amount of pull with Senate Republicans.

Des Moines Register, Associated Press