Former Sen. Richard Lugar, an Indiana Republican who won admirers from both political parties during a 36-year Senate career, died Sunday from complications of a chronic neurological disorder, according to the nonprofit Lugar Center, which he had founded.
Although most obituaries will focus on his contributions to nuclear disarmament and foreign policy acumen as chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Lugar, 87, played a major role in agriculture and food aid policy.
He chaired the Senate Agriculture Committee twice – from 1995 through 2000 and for six months in 2001 – but his achievements came less from his committee tenure than from his persistent efforts over the years to reduce federal intervention in crop production.
In his final years in the Senate and afterwards, Lugar championed international agriculture development and the U.S. Feed the Future initiative, and he also urged other countries to accept agricultural biotechnology. He saw both U.S. aid and genetic engineering as critical to feeding a growing global population.
"Agricultural productivity does not turn around overnight. Providing the right conditions and incentives to eliminate poverty is a long-term endeavor," he wrote in a 2014 op-ed.
In earlier years, he also focused on domestic U.S. farm policy. As early as his first campaign for the Senate – an unsuccessful attempt to unseat Democrat Birch Bayh in 1974 – he advocated policies to “encourage the farmer to move toward full production by assuring him that freedom to market his products will not be hampered by the federal government.”
After taking office in 1977, he became a persistent critic of quota programs for tobacco, peanuts and sugar; he was able to see the abolition of the first two, but not sugar.
Just a few days before Christmas in 1994, as he was preparing to become chairman of the committee, he spoke and fielded questions from reporters for an hour and a half, referring only on a few occasions to the handful of papers before him, demonstrating a grasp of details and effects of farm programs few other members of Congress even knew by name.
He distributed a nine-page interrogatory to the standing-room news conference in the committee’s hearing room, questioning almost every facet of farm support and income transfer programs.
It was part of a consistently analytical approach to farm policy that marked his political journey. His soliloquy not only staked out an intellectual marker that would influence the Freedom to Farm proposal enacted in 1996 but also foreshadowed his unsuccessful 2002 farm bill proposal to phase out existing programs and give farmers vouchers to use in risk management programs such as futures, options and whole farm revenue insurance.
He planned to have a committee bill “that would bear more of my thinking” but his plans changed when then-Senator James Jeffords of Vermont switched parties and gave Democrats control of the Senate in June 2001.
Almost alone in agricultural politics, Lugar was never comfortable reiterating the familiar defenses of farm programs as necessary to preserve family-style agriculture.
He argued instead that the programs had failed to meet most of their long-time goals. He was able to be a critic of farm programs but maintain strong support, until recently, in his state’s farm regions by taking their side in favor of repealing estate taxes and aggressively supporting renewable fuels, biotechnology, research, export promotion and agricultural trade liberalization.
Among other Lugar contributions too numerous to mention was his selection of agricultural staff assistants who went on to put their own imprints on farm policy.
The late William G. Lesher, his first farm hand, became assistant secretary of agriculture for economics and a successful lobbyist before he retired as executive director of the Global Harvest Initiative.
Chuck Conner, his committee staff director for several years, later was White House farm advisor, deputy secretary of agriculture and CEO of the National Council of Farmer Cooperatives.
His Senate career ended after he was defeated in the 2012 Republican primary by a candidate who capitalized on support from tea party and national conservative groups who depicted Lugar as too willing to compromise with President Barack Obama and Senate Democrats.
Former Democratic Sen. Max Baucus, who co-chaired the advocacy group Farmers for Free Trade with Lugar, said he “leaves behind an unmatched legacy of bipartisan achievement on everything from nuclear nonproliferation to food and agriculture policy.”
“At a time when trade policies that keep many farmers afloat have come under fire, Dick stood up with me to ensure their voices are being heard,” Baucus said. “It was a typically brave stance from a man who has always been guided less by politics than by doing what was right for his constituents.”
Former President Bill Clinton, writing on his Twitter feed, said Lugar was "a man of great decency who was widely respected for his willingness to reach across the aisle in the name of good policy. I always liked working with him because he was on the level. His service made America safer and stronger."
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