As this column is being written, Senator James Jeffords of Vermont has announced he is leaving the Republican Party to become an independent. As a result, control of the Senate will switch to the Democrats, profoundly affecting the legislative agenda in Washington, including a variety of food safety issues.

First, control over the Senate committees will change to the Democrats. In turn, the influence of various Democratic members will greatly increase.

Tom Harkin will likely chair the Agriculture Committee and the Labor, Health and Human Services Subcommittee of the Appropriations Committee, while Ted Kennedy will chair the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, with Joe Lieberman heading the Governmental Affairs Committee.

Issues such as a single food agency, regulation of genetically modified foods and USDA's regulation of meat and poultry for microbiological risks will all move forward on the agenda of the Senate. Likewise, one can expect the Democrat-controlled Senate to conduct oversight of the Republican-led executive branch (and quite possibly on the industry itself) on a variety of topics: Is FDA doing enough to ensure the safety of the food supply? Are dietary supplements being adequately regulated?

Second, the “advice” part of the Senate's role in reviewing executive branch appointments will increase. A prospective FDA commissioner will now face a confirmation hearing chaired by Senator Kennedy, a prospect that may induce Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson to put forward a more mainstream candidate than he might have otherwise supported. Very little suggests the administration is anywhere near selecting someone to replace Jane Henney as FDA commissioner.

Likewise, the change in control of the Senate cannot help the candidacy of a former staff attorney for the conservative Washington Legal Foundation to become the FDA chief counsel, even though that position is not subject to Senate confirmation.

Third, the influence of consumer and activist groups, like the Center for Science in the Public Interest, increases. These groups will now find a forum for their ideas in the form of the Democrat-controlled committees, and one can anticipate hearings on food labeling and food safety issues that previously would have been kept off the agenda by the Republicans. On some issues of long interest to the food industry—uniformity, for example—prospects dim in light of the change in the Senate.

Fourth, newspapers recently suggested the administration's intent to pursue “deregulation” once again, much as former President Reagan did. An example for this proposition is the nomination of Harvard professor John Graham to head the Office of Management and Budget that reviews the regulations of federal agencies before they are published in the Federal Register.

The ability of the administration to pursue a broad deregulatory strategy has been fundamentally altered by Senator Jeffords' decision to leave the Republican Party. Democrats will not watch idly if the administration adopts a deregulatory agenda, especially in the health and safety area.

Finally, the prospects for FDA jurisdiction over tobacco just increased. Although Phillip Morris has been promoting legislation that would give FDA jurisdiction over tobacco, that legislation had little chance of moving in the Republican-controlled Congress. With the Democrats in charge, proponents of FDA regulation of tobacco can now expect Senate hearings on such legislation and, quite possibly, Senate action. If a tobacco bill gets to the Senate floor, it will almost certainly pass. Whether that bill gets anywhere in the House is another matter.

In today's Washington, one Senator's decision can certainly have a dramatic effect on politics and policy.