WASHINGTON, Feb. 18, 2015 –When Kansas Senator Pat Roberts holds his first hearing as Chairman of the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry next week, he will make a simple, yet symbolic change in the order that witnesses appear –calling on producers to testify ahead of the Secretary of Agriculture on Feb. 24.

“My priority for the committee this year is to ensure that farmers and ranchers and other rural stakeholders have a voice, ”Roberts told Agri-Pulse in a wide ranging interview this afternoon, the first of several he plans to conduct with other media outlets prior to next week’s hearing. 

“I wanted to show farm country that we value their opinions and want to be responsive to them.  We want results.  I think too many times they feel that basically that’s just not happening....that they don’t have a voice in Washington.”

After producers testify, Roberts said that the committee will then hear from Secretary Vilsack and the Chairman Emeritus (as he referred to former Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow), “so that we can all work together on what is working and what is not.”

Roberts brings a unique skill set and experience to the committee’s helm, the only member to have also served as chair of the House Agriculture Committee (from 1995 to 1997). He’s also the first in history to have served as ranking member of both of the House and Senate Agriculture committees.

Earlier in the day, Roberts conducted a roundtable discussion in Topeka with state leaders in agriculture, banking and rural electricity to hear their concerns. He said the number one complaint from farmers “is the amount of over burdensome, costly and in some cases ridiculous regulations, including a proposed rule  dealing with the waters of the U.S. and endangered species listings.

“One farmer told me he felt ‘ruled,’ not governed. I think that pretty well sums it up, ”Roberts added. He said Senate Republicans are likely to use the appropriations process to kill regulations that are “so terribly costly and a real burden to farmers.” Whether or not they’ll be able to convince President Obama to sign funding bills that kill other federal regulations remains to be seen.

Roberts pledges to conduct several farm bill oversight hearings, while also working on reauthorization of the Commodity Futures Trading Commission, child nutrition legislation and grain inspection in the 114th Congress.

While he’s not looking to reopen the farm bill, Roberts suggested that some cuts may be forthcoming as a result of budget reconciliation instructions that will likely come as the Senate approves its first budget in five years.

“Sen. Mike Enzi is in charge of that and I think everybody has already come to him and said we already paid at the store. He’ll have a number and we’ll have to meet that number.  We might get lucky, but everybody is going to have to do at least some share…..That’s going to be a big responsibility right off the bat,” Roberts emphasized.

He recognizes that there is strong interest in reforming the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), commonly called food stamps, and pledges additional hearings on the topic.

“I know that we have some members who would like to send the whole program to the states. That’s not going to happen.  But this represents 83 percent of our budget.  My goodness, we would be negligent in not doing strong oversight on the program and see what can be improved,” he added.

However, Roberts expressed caution about how food stamp reform efforts could potentially backfire.

“I don’t want to reopen the farm bill and you could certainly do that if you get into a wholesale reform with the SNAP program.”

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 One farm bill title that Roberts wants to avoid cutting is crop insurance – despite calls to do so in the president’s 2016 budget proposal.

“We saved it, improved it and it shouldn’t be a target for cutting,” he said. “We just got three years of drought in Kansas and if we didn’t have crop insurance a lot of farmers would not be in farming.”He pledged to conduct oversight on the entire program and then launch a “determined education effort” about the benefits of buying insurance where farmers have “skin in the game”versus ad hoc disaster assistance.

One area where the GOP and the president are likely to find common ground is on advancing new trade agreements, but first, “we really need fast track authority, ”Roberts said, referring to Trade Promotion Authority which spells out objectives and sets parameters for a trade agreement and then allows members to take a straight, up or down vote on new trade agreements. He praised Vilsack and U.S. Trade Representative Michael Froman for talking about the economic benefits of new trade agreements, for producers and across rural America.

Roberts was less enthusiastic about opening up new trade flows with Cuba and a bill that some of his fellow Agriculture Committee members offered last week. 

The Freedom to Export to Cuba Act was introduced by Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., and is co-sponsored by Democrats Debbie Stabenow of Michigan, Patrick Leahy of Vermont and Dick Durbin of Illinois as well as Mike Enzi of Wyoming and Jeff Flake of Arizona. While the measure would repeal key provisions of previous laws that block Americans from doing business in Cuba, it would not repeal portions of law that address human rights or property claims against the island nation's Communist government.

“I’ve not committed to any bill at this point.  I think we have to move on a step-by-step process for a reality check on what is possible.  I’d be more than happy to work with Senator Stabenow who would really like us to hold a hearing on it,”he added.

Roberts has been to Cuba several times and plans to go again at some time in the future, however, “I’ve run into a situation where you end up dealing with the state owned enterprise and you hit sort of a brick wall with credit with all sorts of programs that you think might be helpful.  We need to get past that.”

But he also noted that it “doesn’t mean that this isn’t a real opportunity. That’s what a hearing on Cuba should be about.”

Although the Senate Agriculture Committee does not have jurisdiction over some of the troubling regulatory issues that Roberts would like to see addressed, he said his committee may have joint hearings with the Environment and Public Works Committee, chaired by Oklahoma Sen. Jim Inhofe,  in order to “help build a public record for action in the EPW committee.”

“He (Inhofe) knows that we’re on the receiving end of all this stuff. He has the jurisdiction to address it through legislation. And then if we do it right, we can build a consensus to get a good majority vote.”

Roberts would like to refocus the Endangered Species Act on conservation, rather than attempts to “list every possible species we can find in the world.

“Let’s go back to its original intent and build a consensus around that and then you avoid all these controversial fights where you have a standoff between the environmental groups and farmers and ranchers. That’s not good for either side,”he explained.

Asked what his biggest challenge will be to overcome as committee chair, Roberts said he hopes there won’t be anything insurmountable.

“It is my hope that we will find once again that the agriculture committee tends to be one of the least partisan committees in Congress,”Roberts said, while noting that Ranking Member Debbie Stabenow “has shown an immense talent for persevering and getting things done.”

“Given that, if we can work with these challenges we face and put the farmer and rancher first….let the producers have their say and let’s go together and see if we can’t get the job done.”


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