Two of the biggest agricultural issues Congress will apparently attempt to deal with in this session are going to be volatile and unpredictable: immigration and trade. Immigration reform is receiving a lot of attention right off the bat but as befitting a political football, is getting kicked back and forth a lot. When people in America talk about political footballs, they are talking about American football, with sporadic forward movement towards a goal, resulting in a touchdown or a field goal.

This political immigration game appears more like European football, which we call soccer. Lots of back and forth, and back and forth and back and forth until American football fans, used to speedy play, begin to wonder if they will live long enough to see a goal. I’m not sure we will see agreement on any significant bills on immigration and soccer doesn’t have field goals. There are an awful lot of groups and subgroups and none of them agree. And the issues do not lend themselves to compromise.

Establishment Republicans and conservative Republicans have different priorities. Liberal Democrats disagree with Democrats from border states. Bureaucrats within federal agencies disagree. The federal Department of Justice likes to sue border states. The Department of Homeland Security seems to turn some criminals loose, hasn’t the manpower or firepower to apprehend others and no doubt complained to their bosses all spring and summer about diaper duty.

Meanwhile, President Obama must be laughing himself sick watching all the players running around like, well, you know what critters run around with their “heads cut off.” Do we believe Obama calculated this is how Congress would act and took off on his “executive memoranda” to allow more illegal immigrants to stay, figuring no one would be able to organize and stop him? Could be. The problem in handicapping the president is that he is consistent only with ideology. He and his advisors can be in turn politically tone deaf, politically astute and sometimes embarrassingly inept at misleading and obfuscating.

Immigration reform always was going to be difficult, given border security issues, the fence that hasn’t been built, the overcrowding of some facilities during seasonal border “rush hours,” deciding the fate of millions of illegal immigrants already here and a guest worker program. But when the president went boldly off Constitutional script, as many Republicans and some Democrats believe he did with his executive memoranda, he made the whole situation dramatically more volatile and polarized. The game shifted right away from “reform” to stopping his executive memoranda first and foremost.

A recent description of rumored possibilities in The Hill, a Beltway publication monitoring Congressional happenings, was a litany of  “adding language from,” “stripping language from,” “destined for failure,” “conservative defections,” “Democratic filibuster,” “sweeten the deal,” “conservatives have been divided” and so one and on. Obviously, no one really has any idea what could come out of such a stew. In addition, House Speaker John Boehner is considering suing the president over his executive memoranda, which probably would clear appeals years from now.

The bottom line at this point appears to be this:  when it comes to immigration issues, the positions are pretty well defined, few legislators appear interested in bending and even the Republicans may not be able to muster enough votes from either side of the aisle to pass anything with teeth. No one should be deceived. These issues are difficult and there is no apparent way to paper over the differences. The near term prod is the expiring of the DHS’ budget the end of February. Republicans are not likely to give up trying to pull the teeth of Obama’s executive memoranda. Just this angle alone is probably good for several short-term DHS budget extensions while the maneuvering continues.

Another article in The Hill summed it up nicely, saying bills Democrats consider too tough on illegals are considered too lenient by conservative Republicans. It’s a good bet meaningful immigration reform could take more Republicans in Congress able to compromise and a Republican president or the party split will go Democrat in future years and the status quo will please them. Ag businesses looking for any real immigration reform soon are likely to be disappointed.

On the other hand, the political lines on trade issues are drawn along much more traditional lines and probably represent the best chance of achieving anything favorable to agriculture this year. The liberal left and the labor unions oppose even Trade Promotion Authority (TPA), much less any trade deal. But many Republicans, some Democrats and the president favor growing the economy with increased trade. With both the European Union and Japanese economy teetering on the brink and the U.S. economy lagging far behind typical post-war recessions, America could use an economic boost.

Considerable optimism from all sides surrounds the actual Trans-Pacific Trade Partnership (TPP) negotiations. But lengthy international negotiations involving a dozen countries leave the toughest issues until last. Recent rumored stumbling blocks have included currency manipulation issues and autos. But most of the countries involved have significant economic incentives to hang in there and get a deal. Surprisingly, Canada seems to be the country betting the TPP won’t happen at all. Unless Congress passes TPA for the president and his administration to negotiate a final agreement, Canada could be right.

One other consideration. China is not part of the TPP. So the completion of a TPP could soften up China’s intransigence on some issues, to get an assured supply of U.S. beef in the face of increased supplies going elsewhere in the Pacific region.

But structural agriculture reform in Japan is rumored to be progressing well. That would drastically simplify doing business with Japan, significantly reduce our 40 percent tariff over time and narrow the price difference between U.S. high quality beef and Australian beef getting better tariff deals under a new bilateral agreement. If you want to see increased trade access, bend your Congressman’s ear over Trade Promotion Authority. It is essential. 

But if you must ask him about immigration reform, be prepared for a lengthy list of excuses or a quick, “Who knows.” 

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Steve Dittmer, a veteran in agricultural policy and commentator.