Midterm Election Analysis
Andrew Kimbrell, Executive Director
November 14, 2018
While it has been a week since the polls closed, not all of the races have been decided, nor all the votes counted. Nevertheless, we wanted to provide an update on the midterm elections and some context for what they may mean for the issues that most concern our work at Center for Food Safety (CFS).
IMPACT ON FOOD AND ENVIRONMENT ISSUES
We at CFS interpret the word "safety" in our name very broadly. Our mission is to promote a food system that is safe for all of us, our families and communities, but also safe for our soils, air, water, and the living creatures with whom we share the planet. We also are devoted to making "organic" the basis for all food production in the U.S. We tirelessly defend the current organic standards even as we also push to evolve the organic ethic by promoting "beyond organic" agriculture that is local, appropriate in scale, biodiverse, humane, socially just, and climate friendly.
The first important message about the midterm elections for the food movement is that they did not change those who lead the federal agencies. So whether it is the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA's) approval of toxic pesticides, the U.S. Department of Agriculture's (USDA's) attempts to weaken organic regulations or undermine GMO labeling, or the Department of Interior (DOI) trying, once again, to allow GMOs and neonicotinoid pesticides on national wildlife refuges, CFS' legal and science teams remain the main line of defense. We stop harmful proposals at the agency level, and take these agency's to court to halt illegal actions when necessary. CFS will remain vigilant and inform you about what actions you can take.
It is important to keep in mind when reviewing election results that while Democratic legislators generally are more favorable than Republicans to protecting our food and environment, there are exceptions.
For example, the "Organic Caucus" in the House of Representatives, while dominated by Democrats, does have some Republican members. Senator Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) has been a champion in the fight against the approval and marketing of genetically engineered salmon. Libertarian leaning senators such as Rand Paul (R-KY) and Mike Lee (R-UT) have occasionally been opponents of federal regulations preempting state and local laws on GMOs. Conversely, Democrats like Senators Joe Donnelly (D-IN) and Heidi Heitkamp (D-ND) are very pro-GMO and have both played negative roles in the struggle for mandatory labeling of GMOs. (Both lost their elections last Tuesday.) Working on a bipartisan basis remains an important feature of CFS' legislative strategy.
THE HOUSE OF REPRESENTATIVES
Though not all the results are in, the Democrats will have control of the House of Representatives with a sufficient margin to overcome "defections" and control any legislation that would be forthcoming from that body as of January, 2019. This is the first time that the Democrats have controlled the House since losing their majority in 2010. As a result of Democrats taking back the House, it is less likely that legislation undermining protection of our food or environment will emerge from that body. Regardless, we at Center for Food Safety (CFS) will continue to monitor legislative action, keeping an especially close eye on the Farm Bill, which still could include provisions that would undermine organic and environmental issues.
Another positive outcome from the election is that the investigative and oversight powers of the House may now be used to make federal agencies more accountable for actions that threaten food safety, farm communities, or the environment.
The next speaker of the House is likely to be Nancy Pelosi, who has been generally supportive of the food and environment issues relevant to the CFS mission. We are therefore hopeful that, over the next two years, we will not see any attempt to weaken the Organic Food Production Act (OFPA), or the many environmental and consumer protection statutes that our legal team, and other organizations, depend on to protect food safety and the environment. That being said, CFS will continue to monitor legislative action, in particular the Farm Bill, which had numerous dangerous provisions in it, and likely could still include provisions that undermine organic standards.
Additionally, the various House committees, now more friendly to our mission, can compel the heads of the EPA, U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), USDA, DOI, and other relevant agencies to appear at hearings and account for their actions and decisions. This can have some effect in reducing malfeasance at the agency level and encouraging more responsible regulatory behavior.
However, it is important to note that while most of the new Democratic committee chairs are now more apt to be in line with parts of the CFS mission, this is not true of the House Agriculture committee whose new Democratic chairman, Colin Peterson, has been a major supporter of the agro-chemical industry. CFS will continue to keep a close eye on Peterson and other Democrats on the House Ag committee and pressure them to stand up for organic and sustainable food production.
Of most immediate concern is the future of the Farm Bill, which we at CFS call the Food Bill. This bill is of critical importance in shaping all of American agriculture. There are ongoing attempts to compromise between the current House version of the bill, which had numerous damaging provisions that CFS opposes, and the Senate version which has problems, but is more acceptable. If the parties are not be able to agree during the "lame duck" session in the coming weeks, it would present the new Democratically-controlled House with an important opportunity to craft a version that is better for our farmers, organic, soil conservation, and species protections; a bill that promotes food aid allowing safe, nutritious food for all Americans, with special emphasis on allowing all our children to live healthy, active lives. Should that happen, we will be urging you to contact your member of the House to make this bill the strongest it can be.
Though the Republicans gained a seat in the Senate (or two, as not all the results are in yet), their majority falls short of the 60 votes necessary to pass legislation that would undermine our food or environmental protections, unless they can convince several Democrats to join them. However, the added Republican majority in the Senate will make it easier for judicial nominees and federal agency appointees to be approved. Given the President's past nominees and appointments, it is probable that subsequent candidates for these positions will be hostile to regulatory protections of our food and environment.
As it takes 60 votes in the Senate to pass legislation, the Republican majority is not sufficient to accomplish any legislative moves without some Democrats joining them. Given the Democrats who remain in the Senate, it seems doubtful that there would be a significant number of "defections," so it's less likely that any weakening of food safety, consumer protection, or environmental laws will be forthcoming from the Senate despite the slight increase of Republican seats.
Unfortunately, the larger Republican majority may make it easier for the President to appoint agency officials. The President's past appointees to the EPA, USDA, DOI, and other relevant agencies have most often been industry-friendly and hostile to the very regulatory control their agencies were designed to wield. It is expected that many staffers in the agencies will be leaving the posts after the midterms, and it is very doubtful that the Senate, which is responsible for consenting to any new appointments, will put up any road blocks to candidates whose actions are devoted to increasing industry profits and not defending the public's welfare or the environment. CFS will keep the public closely informed about these changes and what actions you can take to reduce the negative impact of these nominees over the next two years.
The larger Republican majority will also make it easier for the President to appoint federal judges. There are currently 135 vacancies in all federal courts and 48 nominees pending. The President's past appointments have been near uniform in their hostility to environmental regulations and consumer protections. We hope that certain Republican senators will reject candidates whose views on these issues are out of the mainstream, but given the current make-up of the Republican caucus, that does not appear likely.
Democrats made gains at the state level, winning governorships in several important states and majorities in some state Houses. This may make it easier for CFS supporters and others to work effectively at the state level in the coming years.
The Democrats flipped the governorship in Illinois, Kansas, Maine, Michigan, New Mexico, Nevada, and Wisconsin. The Democrats flipped state legislative chambers in Colorado (Senate), Maine (Senate), Minnesota (House), New Hampshire (House and Senate), and New York (Senate). The Republicans flipped Alaska (House). The Democrats increased their "trifectas" — as defined as gaining the governor, Senate, and Assembly in the same state — in six new states for a total of 14 states. Even with so many Republican losses, Republicans still have trifectas in 22 states. The gains in governors, trifectas, and state legislators offer a greater opportunity for the food movement to work at the state level over the next two years while a divided federal legislature and the veto power of the President will make any progress at the federal level difficult.
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