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WASHINGTON — A paper published by a think tank last month warned that Sen. Blanche Lincoln's ascendancy to the Agriculture Committee chairmanship was a bad omen for passage of climate-change legislation in 2010 due to her close ties to agricultural producers and processors seen as major contributors of greenhouse gases.
The paper, written by former Washington Post reporter Dan Morgan, was released by the German Marshall Fund of the United States, about a week before Lincoln became one of only three Democrats to co-sponsor a bill — largely drafted by lobbyists for carbon-emitting industries — that would gut the Environmental Protection Agency's plans to proceed on its own with carbon restrictions. Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska was lead sponsor.
The Post reported Jan. 11 that lobbyists greatly assisted in writing the bill. Two days later, the German Marshall Fund, which describes itself as a “non-partisan American public policy and grant-making institution,” released Morgan's paper that fingered Lincoln.
Called “The Farm Bill and Beyond,” the 62-page document warned: “Lincoln's appointment was yet another example of Democratic real politik trumping policy interests: It may weaken the chances for climate-change legislation, but it will strengthen her fund-raising ability going into a tough 2010 re-election campaign. Lincoln will be well positioned to influence trade and climate policy, farm subsidies, and food issues such as the use of growth hormones in milk and antibiotics in animal feeds (a key interest of Arkansas-based Tyson Foods, the world's largest processor of and marketer of beef, chicken, and pork).”
Lincoln was appointed chairman of the committee in September.
Morgan, a freelance writer on energy and agriculture, summed up that “Old Ag forces have been immeasurably strengthened” by Lincoln's gaining the chairmanship in the fall. He defined “Old Ag” as the major farming organizations and commodity groups who favor the status quo in government subsidies and programs.
Old Ag also sees agriculture “as a loser in climate-change legislation,” Morgan wrote.
Agricultural practices are blamed for producing at least 15 to 20 percent of greenhouse gases by United Nations panels. Meat production, highlighted by deforestation to make room for grazing, and manure that emits nitrous oxide and methane gas, have been especially blamed. But crop practices that include fertilizer applications and some cultivation techniques are also viewed as contributors.
Morgan contributed an article to his former newspaper in August that coined the term “Agracrats” to describe Democrats from intensive farming states in the South and Great Plains. They overlap significantly with the conservative Blue Dog Democrats, he said, and added their desire to protect farm programs was certain to cause flare-ups with more liberal Democrats.
“The furious farm-bloc reaction to the climate bill approved by the House Energy and Commerce Committee … [in June 2009] caught House Democratic leaders off guard,” Morgan wrote in the Washington Post story.
An examination of Lincoln's Senate record on climate-change policy over the past decade shows some flip-flops in votes and positions on climate change. In Senate testimony and press releases she has generally backed the idea of addressing global warming, but has warned such legislation should not harm the economies of poor states such as her own.
In 2003, Lincoln opposed a less ambitious bill to address climate change sponsored by Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer of California. She expressed fears about higher utility rates, even a $5 a month increase, and other costs being a hardship for her low-income constituents.
In 2007, Lincoln changed and signed on as a co-sponsor to essentially the same legislation. In testimony before the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, she explained her reversal with references to duck-hunting traditions in her family and in Arkansas. She also cited an Arkansas State University study that said global warming threatened bird migration patterns.
In testimony before the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee that year she said: “If climate change were to continue on its current path it is not too far fetched to say that ducks could stop migrating to the deep South altogether as warmer temperatures in more northern regions would reduce their need to do so. As the study points out, the effect on the small communities whose economy depends on hunting season could be devastating.”
And in 2008, Lincoln signed on to a letter written by Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W. Va., and sent to Boxer and Majority Leader Harry Reid, that outlined factors that should be considered in drafting a cap-and-trade system for limiting greenhouse gases.
One of those was to “fully recognize agriculture and forestry's role” in contributing to the problem.
In 2009, however, she made it clear that she could not support the climate change legislation that emerged from the House Energy and Commerce Committee and passed that chamber in June.
“The majority of Arkansans rightly believe efforts need to be made to reverse the detrimental effects of climate change. However, they are apprehensive, and rightly so, about what a massive policy change such as a cap-and-trade plan would mean for them at a time of tremendous economic uncertainty,” she said in a statement.
“The legislation passed by the House,” she added, “places a disproportionate share of the economic burden on families and businesses in rural America. It is a deeply flawed bill. I will not support similar legislation in the Senate.”
Lincoln offered similar explanations last week as she co-sponsored Murkowski's bill. “Heavy-handed EPA regulations will cost us jobs and put us at an even greater competitive disadvantage to China, India and others,” a statement said.
The Arkansas senator was immediately praised by many agricultural groups for her support of the anti-EPA legislation.
Morgan, who wrote the think tank paper, as well as many political observers, see her position as reflecting her need to continue getting campaign funds from agricultural interests for what is expected to be a tough re-election fight this year.
It could be an interesting issue in her re-election bid. Pollster Earnie Oakleaf of the Little Rock firm Opinion Research Associates said in a telephone interview that his past polling shows Arkansans are more pro-environmental protection than generally thought. That was even the case when questions pitted protection of the environment against economic development.
“I was stunned,” Oakleaf said. He added that he thinks such attitudes are caused by the state's hunting and fishing traditions.
There is little doubt Lincoln's re-election campaign fund-raising has depended heavily not only on agribusinesses but on energy and other resource–extraction industries that emit carbon.
The Center for Responsive Politics, a nonpartisan campaign research organization, lists agribusinesses, oil and gas companies and utilities as among her top 10 sources of support from industries. She also has received significant contributions from companies involved in “agricultural services and products.”
In all, the center says she's received $810,000 from various agriculture-related interests and $609,000 from energy and natural resource firms, a category that includes electric utilities, oil and gas, mining and forestry companies.
Among all 2010 congressional candidates, Lincoln is the No. 1 recipient of contributions from agricultural and oil and gas interests.
Through Sept. 30, the date of the latest Federal Election Commission filings, the incumbent Democrat had raised a total of $7.17 million for her race.
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