Midterm Elections: Who Will Be the Next Chair of the Senate Agriculture Committee?

Personally, I would love to see the chairmanship appointed to someone who is in the position to challenge agribusiness.

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The Senate Agriculture Committee at work. [Photograph: IllinoisChannel on Flickr]

The 21 members of the Senate Agriculture Committee are arguably some of the most powerful players in our nation's food system. Most of the senators on the committee come from states that focus on industrial crop production and agriculture. These states are also the primary recipients of high subsidies for crops such as corn, rice, wheat, and soybeans. Among the Agriculture Committee's most important duties is oversight of the Farm Bill. The next Farm Bill will be voted on in 2012, and public hearings have already begun across the country.

Currently the committee is headed by senator Blanche Lincoln (D-AR), who is known for her support of large-scale agricultural interests, such as the Arkansas-based Tyson Foods. But it looks like Lincoln's time may be up.

New York Times blog FiveThirtyEight forecasts a 100% chance that Lincoln will lose her spot to Republican John Boozman. Whoever subsequently takes over senator Lincoln's seat on the Committee will be the one guiding policy on subsidies, agricultural research, and nutrition programs.

So who's in line? If Democrats maintain control of the Senate, then Debbie Stabenow (D-MI) seems the most likely to take up the seat. She is the highest-ranking member of the Agriculture Committee who does not head up another committee. However, another committee member, the relatively conservative Ben Nelson (D-NE), is also being mentioned as a contender. Politico reports that if Republicans are even close to gaining a Senate majority, they will try their best to woo Nelson to their party. Democrats may in turn offer Nelson the Agriculture Committee chairmanship as an incentive to remain on their side.

Alright, enough with the political maneuvering. What's most important to consider is the interests of each of these two candidates. Stabenow is from Michigan, a state that has a varied agricultural industry (outlined well in this piece from the Empty Wheel blog). For the most part, the state is populated by smaller-scale producers and "Big Ag" has less sway. But that being said, Stabenow has raked in more than $200,000 in fundraising from agribusiness in the past five years.

Nelson is from Nebraska, a state heavily invested in the production of corn and other subsidy crops. He makes Stabenow's agribusiness fundraising look meek, to the tune of nearly $600,000 raised in the past five years. Two of his top ten contributors are Omaha Steaks and Nebraska Beef. There is no doubt that Nelson is tied to large-scale agriculture; his appointment would probably mean business as usual for the Agriculture Committee.

What should we be looking for in a new chairperson? Personally, I would love to see the chairmanship appointed to someone who is in the position to challenge agribusiness. Stabenow has the most potential to use her state's own agricultural model to diversify our upcoming food policy and angle it towards local, smaller-scale producers. On the other hand, having a different set of expectations from the past chair and the rest of the committee could cause more disruption and politicking than effect real change. And there is no real evidence to show that Stabenow's plan of action would be significantly different from Nelson's.

It will be interesting and important to follow who takes over this Senate position. While we don't easily hear word of the inner workings of the Senate, the Agriculture Committee silently determines what foods we produce and how we consume them. Keeping up with the political back-and-forth can be frustrating, but is also crucial to understanding American foodways.

About the Author: A student in Providence, Rhode Island, Leah Douglas loves consuming and learning about as much food as possible. She blogs at Feasting on Providence.