It looked to be the year of tax reform, finalizing a Pacific trade agreement and negotiating a trade agreement with Europe. Kent Bacus, National Cattlemen's Beef Association director of government affairs, said things shifted in a matter of days and that may create a new deck for what will be a priority for Congress in 2014.
The pendulum of change started swinging when the U.S. Trade Representative's office announced that Islam Siddiqui would be stepping down as chief agricultural negotiator and Darci Vetter would be his replacement. Vetter currently serves as deputy undersecretary in the Office of the Under Secretary for Farm and Foreign Agricultural Services at USDA.
Mary Kay Thatcher, director of congressional relations at the American Farm Bureau Federation, said "she couldn't think of anybody who'd be better for the job." Thatcher attributed Vetter's perfect background with a trifecta of experience at USTR, Capitol Hill and most recently USDA giving her a great ability to advance the U.S. trade agenda.
The bigger news came from the nomination of Sen. Max Baucus (D-Mont.), chairman of the Senate Finance committee, to be the next ambassador to China.
Baucus' departure will leave a major void in several policy arenas, including health care, taxes and pursuing a proactive U.S. trade policy. He has been a strong advocate of trade with Cuba, the Trans Pacific Partnership, the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, trade promotion authority, and trade adjustment assistance. His absence also will be noticed on the Senate Agriculture Committee, where he is a senior member and farm-bill conferee, and on the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, which he previously chaired.
Bacus said it was a surprise to many, especially since Baucus rolled out new tax reform proposals including a proposal on energy earlier in the week that he was nominated.
"Most of D.C. has been gearing up for Senate Finance Committee mark ups on tax legislation and now Sen. Baucus’ departure from the chairmanship leaves the future of tax reform in a haze of uncertainty," Bacus said. "It will certainly be difficult to try to shepherd the comprehensive tax reform debate while going through a Senate confirmation process to become the Ambassador to China."
The vacancy he creates at the Senate Finance Committee will have a ripple effect across other important committees. The next most senior senator on the Finance Committee is Commerce Committee Chairman Jay Rockefeller (D-W.V.), who has indicated his intention to remain in that role.
Energy and Natural Resources Committee Chairman Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) would be next in line to assume the Finance chairmanship. If Wyden moves to chair Finance, that will open the chairman position on Energy and Natural Resources where Senator Mary Landrieu (D-La.) is the next most senior member and in line to chair that committee.
Bacus said over in the House of Representatives, the future leadership of the House Ways & Means Committee is also up for grabs due to committee chairman term limits for House Republicans. Chairman Dave Camp (R-Mich.) will step down from his position soon, and the eager suitors for the gavel include former Republican vice presidential nominee Paul Ryan (R- Wis.), Rep. Kevin Brady (R-Texas), and Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Calif.).
Each of them certainly has their strengths, Bacus added. "Ryan has been the leader in spending and budget fights, Brady has been the champion of estate tax relief and a staunch advocate for free trade, and Nunes has been a key ally in fighting to expand access for U.S. agriculture in foreign markets. This will certainly be a race to watch," he noted.
This year also includes mid-term elections, which Collin Woodall, NCBA vice president of government affairs, said will determine how effective the Obama administration will be in his last two years. "We need some kind of buffer so he doesn't get too out of control," Woodall said.
The House seems solidly to stay in Republican control, however the Senate has several retirements that could change the dynamics there.
Bacus said, "Don’t be surprised if any more changes are announced in the near future. Remember, 2014 is an election year, and election years in D.C. are always full of surprises."