Recently, Senator Debbie Stabenow (D-MI) was named head of the Senate Agricultural Committee. The head of this committee must juggle a number of competing interests, and holds a huge amount of power. Among her responsibilities will be crafting and finalizing the 2012 Farm Bill. Some have expressed the hope that the next Bill could institute real change for sustainable food practices. Others feel that the internal pressures will be too high to shift too far from the status quo.
Stabenow has a better record in alternatives to Big Ag than some of her committee members. She does not come from a Big Ag state, and the state of Michigan has internally produced some interesting agricultural models. Being exposed to these sorts of ideas may enable her to see the long-term benefits of rooftop gardening, organic practices, and so on. But another place to look if we want to speculate on Stabenow’s future decisions is her record on labor and illegal immigration.
Why are those issues relevant? Well, as those working in the interest of farmworkers it is important to know whether the woman with her hands on the Farm Bill could legitimately be expected to incorporate labor interests in the coming years.
So far, Stabenow’s record has been unremarkable on illegal immigration. She does support internal incentives such as educational benefits and health care for illegal immigrants. However, her official position is rather neutral on the question of giving permanent or temporary visas to H1-B workers, those who would be most likely seen in the fields. And she did not vote for the 2006 Immigration Reform Bill, which would have allowed for legalization of agricultural workers who had been in the U.S. for more than two years prior to 2005, as well as create a larger guest-worker program.
In all it is hard to say which way Stabenow will head with her new Senate appointment. It is easy to expect little change, given the history and bureaucracy of this contentious committee chairmanship. But perhaps Stabenow will surprise us by using her power to implement some real changes, both in agricultural and immigrant labor legislation.