Bob Redding, who lobbies on behalf of agricultural interests in Washington, D.C., had no illusions of being a crowd favorite at the recent Southeast Regional Fruit and Vegetable Conference held in Savannah, Ga.
Positioned as the last speaker on the afternoon program, Redding was following Georgia Commissioner of Agriculture Gary Black, who had just told the crowd their farm labor problem was one that needed to be fixed by Congress, possibly by passing legislation that would authorize a new guest worker program.
Redding’s unenviable task was to tell those in attendance that the likelihood of immigration reform at the federal level anytime soon was about the same as that of pigs flying. Being a consummate professional, he pulled it off and left the room without rotten tomatoes being thrown at him (something you might expect at a fruit and vegetable conference).
“Right now, we’re in the midst of the Republican primaries, which means we’re in full ‘game on’ for the Presidential race, and President Obama already is taking his message out into the field, so looking forward to a bi-partisan relationship on Capitol Hill will be difficult,” says Redding.
There’s a full plate of “must do” issues before Congress, and none of them might get done, he says. For now, the House has 242 Republicans, 192 Democrats and one vacant seat, requiring 26 votes to flip. “Both parties will be working very hard to protect the majority, or to become the majority. So look for a lot of contentiousness and strategic planning as far as which bills are brought to the floor,” he says.
In the Senate, there are 51 Democrats, 47 Republicans and one Independent who caucuses with the Democrats, so three will be needed to flip, says Redding. “Most likely, the Senate will flip this next time around, unless something changes. So we’ll have a Republican House and a Republican Senate. As long as the House and Senate remain divided, it’s going to be very difficult to get anything done in this environment. Unless things change, it’s highly unlikely that we’ll see ‘big picture’ legislation approved, and immigration would fall into that category.”
There are several “must do” items for 2012, says Redding, including the appropriations bills, which he says will be a “nightmare.”
“Everyone will want to put their mark on these bills, whether it’s pro-spending or cutting. Once that starts rocking, in May, June and July — as far as House and Senate markup — it’ll take a lot of time, and it’ll be very ugly.”
The 2012 farm bill is very important, says Redding. “We had a huge loss last year — $1 billion in new money that would have flowed into specialty crops spending research and block grant money, and would have expanded the funds received by fruits for domestic promotion.
“Unfortunately, with the Super Committee’s failure, that proposal went down the tubes. I’m hopeful the committee chairs will come back in the next couple of months and re-introduce the bill they were considering in 2011.
“If that’s the case, we would be the one sector out of two, including livestock disaster, that got an increase compared to the other farm bill entities.”
There are many issues that’ll take a lot of time to resolve, and this is a Congress that’ll be finishing early this year due to the election, he says.
The Washington Post, says Redding, did an analysis of every Congress since 1948, when President Harry Truman talked about the “do-nothing Congress.” Performance for this Congress, as far as moving legislation, was worse. “And 2011 was supposed to be the easy year, so we’re in for a tough year moving legislation in 2012,” he says.
As far as farm labor legislation, an E-Verify bill has been passed out of committee, and a guest worker bill is still in committee, says Redding. “Some of our members in the Georgia delegation have talked to the leadership in the House, and they believe they have a commitment that if we see some movement of a labor reform bill on the House side, we might also see progress on a guest worker or H2A reform bill on the Senate side.
“If we can make progress on that issue this year, even if it dies in the Senate, having those two is critical to show that ag still has the juice to stay in the mix. Otherwise, we end up with a straight E-Verify bill, and we can’t live with that.”
Redding is very skeptical that the Obama Administration will push any “big picture” immigration reform.
“In a Presidential election year, I don’t see the Administration putting forth the political capital necessary to bring parties together on this issue. It’s a huge undertaking that would consume the majority of the legislative year, and frankly, it won’t make anyone happy. So it probably wouldn’t be smart to make that a No. 1 priority.”
Moving immigration reform this year will take a “Herculean” commitment from both leaders in the Senate, and Redding isn’t confident that’ll happen.
“If the Senate flips, there’s probably a chance for some immigration reform initiative in 2013, and even then it won’t be easy. The numbers won’t be that different, and you probably won’t have that magic number of 60 to keep debate from being stalled. And it’s going to be contentious. We have Republican members in the Southeast who refuse to support guest worker programs.”