The election of George W. Bush marks the first time a Republican president will be working with a Republican Congress since 1955.
But the Republican margin is slim, and the window of opportunity for the new administration to pursue its agenda may be extremely narrow.
"We're sailing into uncharted waters as we've never had a situation with a president elected with a minority of the popular vote, a House with such a small margin and a Senate that is divided 50-50," said John Motley, senior vice president, government and public affairs, for the Food Marketing Institute, Washington.
Republicans and Democrats have agreed to share power in the Senate, which gives both parties equal representation on committees and increases the number of Democratic (formerly minority) staffers. The committee chairmen, however, will be Republican.
"None of us knows how the new power-sharing agreement is actually going to work when it's put into effect, but it's a pretty decent opener for some sort of bipartisan cooperation," Motley said. He noted that Bush "seems to understand that he has a window and that he needs to reach out to accomplish many of the things he wants to accomplish."
Brian Folkerts, vice president of government affairs for the National Food Processors Association, Washington, said many of last session's issues will carry over to the 107th Congress because the margins in the House haven't changed dramatically.
"The power sharing in the Senate is an experiment whose results are yet to be seen. Democrats and Republicans are coming in with competing agendas. I don't think it's a recipe for much action," Folkerts observed. He also noted that more staff could mean more oversight. "Historically, more staff means more people looking into problems, whether in the agencies or within an affected industry," he said.
Folkerts predicts that food industry issues will not top the agenda in the House Commerce Committee, which he believes will more likely focus on health reform issues, telecommunications and prescription drugs. However, he hopes that FDA legislation could serve as a vehicle for discussing labeling and enforcement issues, especially national uniformity for food labeling.
Tom Wenning, vice president and general counsel at the National Grocers Association, Reston, Va., observed, "From our perspective, it's going to take a bipartisan effort for anything to pass.
"Look at the Senate. There's already been the historic 50-50 decision, but since it takes 60 votes to pass most legislation, they will need a combination of moderate Democrats and Republicans to pass legislation. That's who will be the important decision makers." Having a Republican administration "presents us with an opportunity to work in a proactive fashion in order to try to accomplish something that is good for the industry and the country as a whole on a number of issues," Wenning said. "But it's going to be a very challenging two to four years. I think the administration will be working very effectively to maximize the window of opportunity that exists."
The Food Distributors International, Falls Church, Va., was delighted to find itself on an inside track with the new administration when its president and chief executive officer, John R. Block, was named to Bush's transition advisory team for agriculture. Other food industry association leaders on the team include Manly Molpus, president and CEO, GMA; Tim Hammonds, CEO, FMI; and Jill Hollingsworth, vice president, food safety, FMI.
Block, a former agriculture secretary under President Reagan, commented, "I'm delighted to have an opportunity to provide whatever assistance I can to the new Bush administration and to Agriculture Secretary-designate Ann Veneman. Food distributors, whether they serve retail grocery stores or restaurants and institutions, are integral links in the food distribution system that begins at the farm. We need to be certain that governmental policies recognize this important role."
Concerns about national uniformity of food labeling and fast-track legislation head the legislative wish list at the Grocery Manufacturers of America, Washington, said Susan Stout, vice president for federal affairs for GMA.
"Many of our members' products are made in one location and shipped to all 50 states," Stout said, noting it would be extremely difficult for manufacturers to have to single out portions of shipments for different labeling.
All food and consumer products already must meet federal guidelines for safety before they are introduced into the marketplace, Stout explained.
"Scientific results do not differ from state to state, so it makes sense to regulate this issue with a uniform label at the federal level," she said, noting that Congress recognized the importance of uniformity in food regulation in the Nutrition Labeling and Education Act, the Meat and Poultry Inspection Acts and the Food Quality Protection Act, among other laws and regulations.
FMI's Motley observed that overall the food industry wasn't thrilled with the regulatory climate of the Clinton administration. "We're looking forward to a more sympathetic ear and maybe a different approach with the incoming administration, particularly in the area of food safety," Motley said, noting that changes in the way recalls are handled would be welcome.