WASHINGTON — Wish lists met political reality this week, as women farmers from California carried their ambitious agenda to Capitol Hill.
Spending bills are late; very late. The farmers want a revised Endangered Species Act. That's going nowhere right now. They want an immigration bill that includes an agricultural guest-worker program. Things definitely don't look promising on that front.
"We got the message that not much is going to happen," Fresno County farmer Carol Chandler said Wednesday, when asked specifically about the guest-worker proposals.
Still, for all the occasional frustrations, this week's trip paid some dividends for Chandler and about 10 other members of California Women for Agriculture. They were participating in the group's annual fly-in, an exercise in grassroots lobbying done in conjunction with American Agri-Women.
The women met with San Joaquin Valley lawmakers, conversed with Obama administration officials and snacked on asparagus and other goodies at a Tuesday night reception in the room normally occupied by the House Agriculture Committee.
"It just opens your eyes," said Hilmar resident Deanna Raya. "I think I was pretty naive, until we encountered situations like ones we've seen during the last several days."
Raya's daughter, Pamela Sweeten, grows almonds in Stanislaus County. Though Sweeten said Wednesday that she remains optimistic about the legislative agenda, she's also returning home knowing a lot more work is needed.
Notably, a House bill to establish an agricultural guest-worker program currently has only 63 co-sponsors, a politically insufficient number in the 435-member House. A companion Senate bill introduced by Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein has 22 co-sponsors, eight less than the same bill had in 2008.
"We just need to get more co-signers on the bill," Sweeten said.
The California farmers now know, if they didn't before, that it's a lot easier to introduce a bill than to pass one. Between Jan. 5 and May 31, House members introduced 1,065 bills. A total of 38 have been enacted into law, although in some cases bills get lumped together in larger packages.
The farmers also now know that there's little time left to act this year, even though lawmakers are starting to resign themselves to a lame-duck session to be convened after the November elections. The House Appropriations Committee has not yet approved any of the 12 spending bills needed to fund the federal government.
Last year at this time, the House panel already had approved about half of the necessary spending bills.
The appropriations bills must be passed, in some fashion, to keep the government operating. Other bills, dealing with topics like Wall Street regulations and energy, have political momentum of their own. The same can't be said, however, for the Endangered Species Act reforms sought by the California farmers.
"We will have to try to develop a new strategy," Rep. Dennis Cardoza, D-Merced, said when asked about the endangered species issue.
Cardoza added that "while we didn't pass the legislation, we certainly moved the dialogue," as Interior Department officials paid increasing attention to California farmers' complaints about environmental rules and irrigation water shortages.
Cardoza's point underscored yet another lesson learned by the California Women for Agriculture lobbying trip participants — sometimes, success defies a simple legislative count.
"It's an important trip to make," Chandler said.