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Would you rather watch sausage-making or Congress?

Al Gunderson Published on 28 June 2012

“To retain respect for sausages and laws, one must not watch them in the making.”
— Otto von Bismarck (Chancellor of the German Empire, 1815-1898)

Recently, I traveled to Washington, D.C. to attend the American Feed Industry Association (AFIA) Board of Directors meeting. Each year, this meeting is held in the nation’s capitol to allow visits to senators, congressmen, USDA, FDA, the U.S.

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Commodity Futures Trading Commission (CFTC) and other government officials. I have made these visits a number of times over the years and they always make for interesting discussions. That said, seeing the political process up close reminds one of sausage making – it’s not a pretty process, although the final product can be quite good.

In the past, I visited my two senators from the state of Wisconsin and our representative from the Madison-area congressional district. At first, it seemed a little scary to get an appointment with such public figures.

However, in this day and age of email (really the only way to make appointments since the anthrax scare a few years back – regular mail takes a long time to be approved and opened), it really is relatively easy for a constituent to contact any Senate or House office and ask for an appointment. Small business owners are VIPs right now, as elected officials know you represent a lot of taxpaying voters and jobs.

Now, making an appointment is the easy part – actually seeing the senator or representative is the hard part. Most of the time, you’ll see the staffer who is tasked with advising the congressman or congresswoman on a particular area, such as agriculture.

If you’re lucky, you might actually get to see your representative – the best times are early in the morning or later in the afternoon, in my experience.

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The best advice I can offer is to be prepared with two or three talking points of the issues most important to you and your contact information for followup. Try to familiarize yourself with the positions held by your representative so you can make the most of your time.

An email thank you and summary of your message can also be an important step. I have found the staffers to be knowledgeable and willing to listen to your concerns.

This year was a little different for me, as my new role as chairman of the board meant that I needed to accompany the “official” delegation to some important meetings.

First, we were briefed by Rep. Frank Lucas (R–Okla.), chairman of the House Agriculture Committee. Lucas was very candid in his remarks about the difficulties he was facing in getting the House version of the Farm Bill to the floor. He made it clear that things were different in trying to complete work on the Farm Bill versus the Farm Bill of five years ago.

Of the 42 current members of the House Ag Committee, 26 were new to the committee since the last Farm Bill was debated – a lot of learning was taking place as they figured out how things work (or don’t work).

The Farm Bill now originates in both House and Senate versions that are then reconciled in conference, which means they can be wildly different in their makeup. Comparatively, the Farm Bill used to be put forth by the administration, debated on the floor of the House and Senate and then a “marked up” bill was sent to conference.

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So what does all that mean? It means that either body of Congress won’t do much until it looks like the other body has some consensus around a bill to send it to the floor. This prolongs the process and makes for more last-minute compromises that are sometimes not completely thought through, which can lead to unintended consequences.

One of the other things Lucas noted was that recent elections had fundamentally changed the numbers of representatives who came from districts with agricultural interests.

In the last Farm Bill, about 160 Democrats and Republicans could work within their respective parties to build coalitions to garner the votes needed to win support for a Farm Bill.

This time around it is less than 60. This is just another factor that makes it more difficult to pass a bill, especially when the overriding concern of many is how to balance a budget that leaves the least amount of voters unhappy.

We then visited the office of Sen. Kent Conrad (R–N.D.), who is the chairman of the Senate Budget Committee. Sen. Conrad was speaking on the floor of the Senate that day, so we met with his top budget aide, Jim Miller.

We discussed the prospects for a Senate Farm Bill. Miller was not optimistic, given the short window of time before summer recess and the need to find budget items to cut – agriculture being a prime candidate in this era of record-high prices.

Miller felt that direct farm payments have little support or chance to continue, but a crop insurance approach is much more likely to pass. He also said, “You ag guys need to get organized; there are not very many of you – you need to speak with one voice or no one will listen.” I remember thinking that was good advice on many fronts.

Lastly, we met with Jill Sommers, a CFTC commissioner. The CFTC and Sommers are in the spotlight dealing with the MF Global bankruptcy case and the proposed regulations concerning trading limits for hedgers and speculators. The JP Morgan $2 billion “risk management” news had also just hit, so Sommers had lots on her mind the day we met.

Although she listened closely to concerns about these issues, it was apparent that Wall Street interests were pushing hard to maintain the status quo and not put more regulation or enforcement in place.

I must admit that it is difficult to define the difference between a hedger and a speculator on paper – “you know it if you see it” – but to write it down in a regulation can be a challenge. This is a critical area for all of us who deal in ag commodities – we need free and open markets that allow all of us the information for decision-making with a relatively level playing field.

I suggest you look for progress (or lack thereof) on this issue – it is tied to a whole raft of banking system items. One other observation I had as we waited to see Sommers was that at least 20 Wall Street lobbyists were waiting to call on her or other commissioners. Again, ag was in the minority, both in numbers and dollars.

So, as this legislative “sausage” gets made, I think we are going to have to accept the fact that it’s not always pretty. However, we have to take a big-picture view and remember that, with the right “grind” from our ag senators and representatives and a little “curing” from FDA, CFTC and others, we might get something we can agree upon to keep putting food on the table for all. PD

Gunderson is vice president of sales and marketing for the Vita Plus Corporation and chair of the American Feed Industry Association.

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Al Gunderson
Vice President Sales and Marketing
Vita Plus Corporation

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