Pat Roberts, the only lawmaker to chair both the House and Senate Agriculture committees, positions he used to reshape decades of farm policy and later to shut down state GMO labeling laws that he felt threatened the future of biotechnology, announced Friday that he will retire at the end of his current term rather than run for reelection in 2020.

Roberts, who has served in the Senate since 1997, oversaw the development of the 1996 Freedom to Farm law as chairman of the House committee and then the 2018 farm bill that President Donald Trump signed into law last month. He served eight terms in the House from the “Big First” district of central and western Kansas. 

At an event in Manhattan, Kan. to announce his retirement, Roberts said, "I am announcing I will serve the remainder of this term as your senator … however I will not be a candidate in 2020 for a fifth term."

He said he intended to "sprint to the finish" of his Senate career and that the Senate Agriculture Committee would focus on trade issues and on oversight of the USDA's implementation of the 2018 farm bill "to make sure it is working for our farmers and ranchers." 

Roberts became chairman of the Senate committee in 2015 and pushed through the landmark biotechnology law in 2016 before turning to the new farm bill the following year.

The biotech measure, which preempted state GMO labeling laws, requires companies to provide information on the presence of biotech ingredients but permits the disclosure to be done through smartphone codes rather than language on the labels themselves. 

Roberts called passage of the disclosure bill the “most important vote for agriculture in the last 20 years" because of the preemption of labeling laws such as the one in Vermont that took effect in 2016. The preemption measure "allows farmers to continue using sound science to produce more food with less resources, gives flexibility to food manufacturers in disclosing information, and gives access to more food information that consumers demand," Roberts said at the time. 

Roberts faced criticism from within his own party for the approach he took on the crafting of the 2018 farm bill, when he often sided more frequently with his committee ranking member, Debbie Stabenow of Michigan, than the House committee chairman, Mike Conaway of Texas. In an interview with Agri-Pulse, Roberts defended his bipartisan approach as critical to passing the bill. He had argued repeatedly that the reforms to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program that Conaway demanded would doom the bill in the Senate.

“We’re in a rough patch with agriculture, and I think everybody in agriculture understood that,” Roberts said. Farmers and ranchers “needed certainty and predictability. Those two things topped any other agenda that somebody might have.”

The 1996 Freedom to Farm bill that Roberts championed as chairman of House Agriculture made history because it dismantled a system of production controls and price supports that dated back to the Depression. Farmers were given fixed annual payments that were supposed to eventually phase out. Congress wound up augmenting the payments when commodity prices collapsed in the late 1990s and then extended them in 2002 and again in 2008 before ending them in 2014 in favor of new programs based on fluctuations in revenue and prices. 

“Back in '96 it was time for a revolutionary bill … or at least a new approach from 40 years of farm program policy where the government dictated what a farmer planted,” Roberts said in the Agri-Pulse interview. “For every set-aside we had our competitors around the world would increase production. It just wasn’t working at all.” He said the 2018 farm bill "addresses the current need." 

In a statement, Stabenow said Roberts "has been a true champion for American agriculture and for Kansas farmers, ranchers, and families. Day in and day out, he defines what it means to be a consensus builder. As my true friend and partner on the Senate Agriculture Committee, he always puts the needs of our farmers and ranchers first and never wavers in his commitment to getting things done."

Roberts' departure will create a campaign for an open Senate seat, the first of the 2020 cycle.

Rep. Roger Marshall, a second-term Republican who represents Roberts' old House district, declined to say earlier Friday whether he would run for the Senate but said he assured Roberts last month that he wouldn't run against him if he sought re-election in 2020. 

"My phone has been ringing off the wall for the past month, but right now I’m going to focus on getting the government back open and the border wall. I'll see what's next," said Marshall.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., issued a statement saying he was sorry to see Roberts go but glad he was finishing out his term. 

When Roberts came to the Senate, he was "already known as a tireless advocate for America’s farmers," McConnell said. "On this side of the Capitol, where he became the first person in American history to chair the Agriculture Committees in both the House and the Senate, my colleagues and I have seen his prolific work up close. He led the charge on passing comprehensive legislation to give agricultural communities the certainty they need, notching big victories as recently as just last year."

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