Tom Karst, National Editor
Tom Karst, National Editor

Listening to the politicians who spoke at the Washington Public Policy Conference, there is nothing that pains our elected representatives more than the government shutdown that began Oct. 1.

That may well be the case, but the frustrated and impassioned lawmakers leave one wondering how we ever arrived at our current unhappy state if both sides of the aisle so much want to talk things out.

“I did not want a shutdown, nor did my colleagues want a shutdown,” said Rep. Austin Scott, R-Ga., chairman of the House subcommittee on Horticulture, Research, Biotechnology and Foreign Agriculture.

“We need to get back to governing, and we need to get things done,” said Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., chairwoman of the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry.

As the shutdown began, it seemed apparent that Republicans were spoiling for a fight over the implementation of Obamacare. While the GOP may have the majority of the public on its side, President Barack Obama showed no signs of giving in.

It played out with extremely divisive politics and the first government shutdown in 17 years.

Compared with the U.S. Congress, Rep. Jeff Denham, R-Calif., said even the California legislature looked bipartisan in comparison.

“There was still enough of a working relationship where you could negotiate on issues,” he said in an address to the WPPC Oct. 2.

While he admitted that dysfunctional Sacramento should not be a model for Congress, he made his point about the intractability of the government shutdown.

“We’ve got to get this solved and solved immediately,” he said with no apparent sarcasm.

House Republicans have framed the shutdown as a fight for fair rules over Obamacare.

Denham said Obama has materially changed some aspect of the health care law 17 times during the past eight months, outside of the oversight of Congress.

“The President can’t pick what parts of laws he wants to implement,” he said.

Denham argued Obama was out of line in making arbitrary exclusions for unions and big business.

“If you are going to give the employer mandate a one year delay, then why not do it for the individual mandate?” he asked.

When and if Congress gets past the government shutdown, Denham said Republicans are concerned about the Senate’s request for an unlimited debt ceiling.

He called that issue the crux of the current friction between Republicans and Democrats.

Without a budget in five years, Congress has funded programs with a series of continuing resolutions.

When Obama was elected, Denham said he called the $9 trillion U.S. debt “un-American.” Now it is $17 trillion, he said.

House Republicans will never agree on Senate’s Democrats desire for a debt ceiling with no cap, he said.

So if Republicans and Democrats can’t come together on the simple issues — a delay in Obamacare — how will they solve the looming monster of the debt ceiling debate?

It’s hard to envision how that will get done.

Once past the debt ceiling debate, Denham predicted the House and Senate would eventually hammer out a farm bill that will be supported in bipartisan fashion in both chambers. The only drama, he said, would be if the nutrition title in the farm bill is a three-year bill or a five-year bill.

“If it is a three-year bill, that means it is going to be separated from the ag portion of the farm bill,” he said.

The biggest issue for Denham — and arguably for the indusry — is immigration.

Denham said that issue will need a push to get across the finish line. The issue doesn’t have a deadline, and that makes it easy to ignore. Once expected to be taken up early in 2013, then before the August work period, it still awaits action.

“Immigration, if it doesn’t get slotted, if it doesn’t become a big issue, it will never get taken up,” he said.

Denham faulted the leadership of Democrats and Republicans in the so-called “Gang of Eight” who have let the immigration debate flounder.

In particular, he called for those lawmakers to publish their proposal.

“Introduce your bill! You (had) it ready for six years!” Denham said. “Let’s get something out there we can be for!” he said.

In the end, Denham said immigration reform is needed and both parties need to focus on it.

Speaking to United Fresh on Oct. 1, Rep. Kurt Schrader, D-Ore., ranking member of the House agriculture committee’s subcommittee on horticulture, said the farm bill might be a path where Republicans and Democrats learn again to work with one another. A successful farm bill could be a path to camaraderie, he offered.

That’s a rosy view, but we will take it on faith.

But if the farm bill flops, where does that leave America?

What's your take? Leave a comment and tell us your opinion.