Congressional Outlook: From Offense to Defense

By Bob Gatty

With the shift of parties in Washington, D.C., key players change … and so do the issues.

The results of the November Congressional elections, which caused a dramatic shift of power on Capitol Hill from Republicans to Democrats, will have significant implications for the Snack Food Association as it works to represent the interests of the snack food industry in Washington, D.C.
“Bottom line, it means we have to go from playing offense to playing defense,” says Mike Torrey, the SFA’s government affairs consultant. “Rather than focusing on initiatives that we want to achieve, we can expect to be in a defensive position trying to stop initiatives that we oppose.”
“That’s a significant shift for SFA,” explains president and CEO Jim McCarthy. “Some key allies who were friends of our industry and helpful in our cause are no longer in Congress. But we will build relationships and develop new allies with those who are now in power. Change happens in Washington, and we will adapt, just as we have done in the past.”
The Lineup
Beginning with the new 110th Congress, there will be 59 new members: 53 in the House and six in the Senate, which will shift from 55 Republicans, 44 Democrats and one Independent to 49 Republicans and 49 Democrats, and two Independents, both of whom will caucus with the Democrats, giving them a narrow 51-49 majority.
In the House, the margin switches from a 232-203 Republican majority to a 231-200 Democrat edge. (Four races, at press time, still were undecided.)
In the two states with the largest number of snack company headquarters, Pennsylvania and Ohio, there are two new Senators: Bob Casey (D-PA) and Sherrod Brown (D-OH).
Torrey points out that Brown, who defeated Sen. Mike DeWine, will be a member of the Senate Agriculture Committee, to be chaired by Sen. Tom Harkin (D-IA).
“They will be taking a much different approach when it comes to such issues as labeling of foods or supporting restrictions on foods that can qualify for federal programs,” Torrey says. “That means we need to help them understand the impact their decisions will have on the snack food industry, and, particularly with Sen. Brown, on companies headquartered in his state.”
Other key committee changes in the Senate include Sen. Ted Kennedy (D-MA) moving into the chairmanship of the Senate Health, Education and Pensions (HELP) Committee, where he has announced as his first priority an increase in the minimum wage from $5.15 to $7.25 per hour. Harkin also will chair the Senate Labor, Health and Human Services Appropriations Subcommittee, where he has traditionally pushed legislation regarding advertising directed at children.
In the House, which will be led by Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA), the Agriculture Committee will be chaired by Rep. Collin Peterson (D-MN). Rep. John Dingell (D-MI) will lead the Energy & Commerce Committee, and Charles Rangel (D-NY) will chair the House Ways & Means Committee.
Torrey notes that two House Democratic caucuses that gained members as a result of the election are generally more pro-business than many traditional Democrats. They are the Blue Dog Coalition, whose members are policy-oriented moderate and conservative Democrats, and the New Democrat Coalition, a group of pro-growth members who focus on issues such as economic growth, national security, personal responsibility and technology development.
“So even though Democrats have gained in numbers, there is also increased influence within the Democratic party of people who understand many of the needs and concerns of business and who will listen to a reasonable position,” Torrey says.
Shift in Priorities
As the realities of power evolve, so must the SFA’s priorities, according to Torrey and McCarthy. During the 109th Congress, the association’s efforts were heavily focused on these key priorities:
• Passing the Personal Responsibility in Food Consumption Act (the Cheeseburger Bill), which would limit lawsuits by people seeking to blame food companies for their obesity
• Passing the National Uniformity for Food Act, which would establish uniform national standards for food labeling
• Opposing limitations on foods as part of government feeding programs
• Opposing Country of Origin Labeling requirements, specifically for processed peanuts
• Making permanent previous temporary reductions in the Estate Tax
Now, McCarthy says, the chances of passing the Cheeseburger Bill and National Uniformity have diminished. Instead, the SFA’s priorities have shifted to:
• Opposing efforts to establish “good food-bad food” definitions in the Food Stamp program and other federal food programs
• Continuing to oppose Country of Origin Labeling
• Opposing shifting food safety responsibilities from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to a new single food agency
• Continuing to support Estate Tax reductions
Included in the major challenges facing SFA and other food industry organizations will be the reauthorization of the 2002 Farm Bill, Torrey says, which will probably include a debate over which food products, based on nutrition, food stamp recipients should be allowed to purchase. That legislation also will focus on such commodities as sugar, peanuts and corn. Additional key challenges will involve:
• Initiatives to regulate advertising aimed at children. (The SFA supports voluntary industry guidelines.)
• Increased oversight of the FDA
• Increased food labeling requirements for potential allergens
• Free trade issues
Another initiative for the SFA — correcting legislation approved last year that inadvertently gave drivers of delivery trucks under 10,000 pounds the right to overtime pay — continued in the “Lame Duck” session of Congress at press time.
“If that’s carried over to 2007, our task will more difficult,” McCarthy explains. “But we will keep pushing. This is extremely important to our members.”
Industry Execs Urged To Attend 2007 ‘Day in D.C.’
With all of the changes in Washington — new faces and a new focus on issues — it’s more important than ever for snack food executives to be involved in the political process, says SFA president and CEO Jim McCarthy.
“A great way to help educate these new members of Congress and even those who have been here for some time is to meet with them face-to-face,” McCarthy explains.
During the SFA Day in D.C. Spring Summit, slated for May 15-18, 2007, attendees will hear presentations from top government officials and meet directly with key Congressmen and Senators and their staff.
“It’s not too early to make plans now,” McCarthy urges. “We need your help.”