By Sara Wyant
© Copyright Agri-Pulse Communications, Inc.
Washington, Oct. 6 – With less than four weeks before the mid-term elections, there’s a lot of speculation over who will be in charge next year and how they’ll govern with dozens of new members. If Republicans pick up at least 39 seats in the House of Representatives, there could be a new Chairman in charge of the House Agriculture Committee. And that’s likely to be Oklahoma Republican Frank Lucas, who currently serves as the Committee’s ranking minority member and is a veteran of three previous farm bills. Lucas was first elected to represent his state’s Third District in 1994, after winning a special election that was held after then-Rep. Glenn English resigned to be CEO of the National Rural Electric Association.
Whether Lucas is chairman or ranking minority member, he will play a key role in writing the next farm bill. In an exclusive interview, Agri-Pulse asked him a variety of questions about his farm bill philosophy and how he’d like to proceed. Some responses were edited for space.
A-P: What’s been the biggest change that you’ve seen since you’ve been involved in writing Farm Bills?
Lucas: Some would say that the toughest Farm Bill was the ’96 Farm Bill, because at that time many said there would never be another. Remember we went from a forty-year Democratic majority to a new Republican majority. People said Republicans would never pass a Farm Bill. Well, we passed a Farm Bill that was dramatically different. In 2002, we were still in control and we added to that bill and made it better. Republican leadership in 2002 put $70 some billion into the Farm Bill. I was the Chairman of the subcommittee with jurisdiction over conservation credit, rural development, and ag research. We put something like $17 billion of that money into additional conservation programs, money well spent.
You roll forward to 2008. Yes, technically we had $10 billion new dollars, but Speaker Pelosi directed all that money to be spent in the nutrition programs. We didn’t have any new money for commodities or conservation, rural development, all of those other programs. Now we step forward to the next Farm Bill. I realize that this will be the toughest budget process. Resources will be more difficult to come by than any Farm Bill that I’ve ever experienced. It doesn’t matter if it’s Speaker Boehner or Speaker Pelosi or Speaker Hoyer.
A-P: Chairman Peterson wants to write a new farm bill next year. You don’t seem to be in as much of a hurry. Why?
Lucas: If we write a Farm Bill a year early, we’ll wind up with less resources to work with and a more difficult environment. I think the multi-year numbers that the OMB (Office of Management and Budget) and CBO (Congressional Budget Office) produce for our baseline will start heading back up. Everything, of course, is subject to what happens in the election in November. Everything is subject to what the majority in the spring will do budget-wise. But from my own perspective, I think we’re better to wait until 2012.
A-P: What about the prospects for budget reconciliation in 2011?
Lucas: There’s a distinct possibility, but it’s only speculation. If you look at how the stimulus money and how the regular budget has increased so dramatically over the last two years, we have not benefitted from those new resources. Yes, we’ve seen a dramatic increase in social nutrition spending, but the commodity title, rural development, ag research, basically many of the conservation programs, we’ve just not benefitted. So I have a case to make with my colleagues, that hey, if you’re examining spending and you look at where there have been dramatic increases in the last two years, five years, ten years, and perhaps rescinding some of that…. we didn’t get any of those increases in agriculture. Why should we have to give up a dramatic portion some might say of what we presently have, when we didn’t have any dramatic increases to start with?
A-P: You could also make the argument that you’ve “given at the bank” on crop insurance, by cutting $6 billion. But at the same time, you’ve got taxpayers looking at strong farm income numbers nationally. How do you defend current payments?
Lucas: That’s one of the other reasons we should wait until 2012 to write the Farm Bill, because we’ll have a picture that’s a better reflection of where we’re really going. World demand has been quite solid. We’ve had weather conditions like the Russians had with their wheat crop this year that have driven things up. I don’t think present commodity prices reflect a multi-year or even a decade-long trend. This is wonderful but, for every wonderful year, there’s three or four tough years out on the farm. Let’s not build our expectations based on what’s great now.
A-P: So, from a process standpoint, is budget reconciliation – if it does happen – going first and the 2012 Farm Bill following a year after a more preferable timeline?
Lucas: Yes. If you have a budget reconciliation bill in February or March, and then you demand that the Ag Committee turn around and write a Farm Bill immediately thereafter, it’s going to be the toughest of budget circumstances imaginable. Let’s be honest, the ’08 bill built on the ’02 bill which built on the ’96 bill, which was a dramatic change away from supply-controlled government management to market-oriented programming. I believe we’ve got a formula here that basically works. We need to build off of this formula not start over from scratch.
A-P: On a scale of 1 to 10 with ten being the highest, what kind of rating would you give to the current farm safety net for farmer and ranchers?
Lucas: You have to remember that I represent an area of Oklahoma that was the Dust Bowl of the 1930s, that witnessed the Great Depression, the Grapes of Wrath. All of those good folks that went to California to pick fruit and work in defense plants We suffered mightily in the drought of the 50s, and the great agricultural property price collapse of the 80s. It basically wiped out the Vietnam generation of farmers, vets who came home in the mid-60s to farm. So I’ve watched all that occur, though I came along a little too late to participate in the worst of it. Part of my goal is to make sure that the circumstances that make those conditions dramatically worse do not occur on my watch. I’ve got a degree in Agricultural Economics, am a graduate of Oklahoma State University, a multi-generation farmer with a cow-calf and wheat operation. I think the framework we have now, is the best we’ve done so far in the evolving of federal policy since the AAA in the 1930’s. That said, at best, a 4 or 5 maybe. I’ve never actually seen a Farm Bill that was a 10 as far as a safety net. And you can’t ever give them a zero or a one because every Farm Bill was written with the intent to try and help.
A-P: So what are the major gaps and areas of improvement?
Lucas: I personally believe that one of the key elements of every Farm Bill since 1996 has been the annual payments, things that producers could count on, show their banker, show their landlord, could sit down and plan with. I know there are a number of folks who would like to shift away from that and go to various kinds of crop insurance or revenue programs. I just remind my good friends that we live in a country with a great deal of diversity, both in the depth of the soil and the quality of the rain and the blessings of Mother Nature. So many of the concepts we’ve worked in the direction of the crop insurance seem to me to be designed so that if you have great years and great rain and great soil, you have a great potential return. But there will come a time when we will have several years in a row of bad prices.
A-P: So as you look at potential modifications in programs, it sounds you are offering a strong defense of direct payments. Would you be open to reinvesting those dollars in other types of risk management tools?
Lucas: If anything, and we’re speculating here, it might be one of those things where giving a producer the choice between A or B, but understanding that if they pick B, they lose their access to A, but they don’t have to pick B if they want to stay with A. Giving them options is a thing we’d have to look at. But it must be within the money that’s going to be available. You mentioned budget reconciliation earlier. The places with the most dramatic increases in spending are social nutrition programs, and I would not be surprised in a budget reconciliation bill, if we weren’t required to focus a lot of effort to make sure that those resources are being effectively and efficiently delivered. As the economy improves, hopefully the need for those kind of programs will be reduced.
A-P: There has been a lot of demand for nutrition programs. There’s also an increasing demand from other interest groups. Specialty crops made headway in the last farm bill. Indian tribes want to see their own title in the next farm bill. You’ve got sixteen tribes in your district. What is the opportunity for new players to come under the next farm bill umbrella?
Lucas: Well, therein lies the challenge if we have the same amount of resources or fewer. Does that mean reslicing the pie? And philosophically, when you come into the federal programs, you also take on federal input, and there are many commodity groups that historically have basically said “leave me alone.” We’ll see what their opinion is. But, without a doubt, if you have a new Majority, you have a new set of Farm Bill hearings that start in the spring, and we ask these questions over again.
A-P: Some folks have speculated that, if you do become Chairman, and Ohio Congressman John Boehner becomes Speaker, his lack of support for previous Farm Bills might be problematic. Do you agree?
Lucas: Remember his role changes dramatically. When John was on the Ag Committee, he was a member from an Ohio district; a reflection of his Ohio district. When you’re Speaker of the United States House of Representatives, you’re Speaker for the whole body. That’s a different set of responsibilities, that’s a different perspective. I have great confidence that John, in that important role, will be the Statesman that we all need.
A-P: Would that mean that, if you were Chairman, you would have a lot of flexibility to establish your own agenda?
Lucas: I think we can come to an understanding, and also, I’m a practical guy. If the change comes in the way that it appears to be this fall, many of those seats that will flip from D to R are country seats. Don’t be surprised if I carry a card in my pocket that lists all those wonderful Republican members in country districts and how important it is that we have a good Farm Bill that will help production ag and rural America prosper, so that those members will prosper.
A-P: You are likely to get new members who are linked to the Tea Party, as well as some fiscally conservative Blue Dog Democrats. Is there a big difference between the two?
Lucas: Not really. They are very focused on the Constitution and not wasting taxpayer resources.
A-P: You’ve made a lot of progress, but driving through your state this spring, I couldn’t help but notice red soils blowing in the wind. Conservation seems to be one of the whipping boys when it comes to budget cuts. Can you provide more resources?
Lucas: We have to make the case to my colleagues in Congress that it’s not just a country issue. If they care about wildlife, probably one of the most dramatic changes of my lifetime in the Plains, particularly with the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP), is an explosion of almost every form of wildlife. The numbers just exploded dramatically. We have to make sure our friends who are in urban or suburban America, or even small towns, understand that those conservation programs enhance their fishing experiences and their hunting experiences. It enhances the quality of their air and the water. It is to their advantage to make that investment. Now, that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t review our conservation programs, doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t work to make sure that for every dollar we spend in cost-share or whatever program, that we don’t maximize the return for the taxpayer.
The old traditional model for passing the Farm Bill from ’33 to the early ‘60s was to have a good commodity title, and you pass it. In the ‘60s, my friends realized that wouldn’t work anymore, and they utilized Lyndon Johnson’s program, which ultimately became food stamps, now referred to as SNAP, as a way to build a rural-urban coalition. That worked great until the 90s, and then suddenly there weren’t enough participants in the cities and rural areas to pass the Farm Bill. In ’02 as subcommittee chairman on conservation, I worked very hard to turn that into (the third leg) of a three-legged stool and we won the day on the floor. We still have to build off of that three-legged stool.
Nutrition is back into vogue. I think it’s wonderful that the First Lady is focusing much of her attention on it. Nutrition, conservation and a good commodity title, along with all the other issues, are still required for rural America to prosper and to get enough votes to pass a bill on the floor.
Whatever anyone may say, rural America is still about agriculture, and agriculture is still about farming and ranching. If you want the countryside to prosper, then we’ve got to have a Farm Bill and a situation where farmers and ranchers can thrive. If the countryside is sick economically, everybody is sick economically.
A-P: Secretary Vilsack has made a big deal about rural regional economic development. Do you agree or disagree with the path he’s on?
Lucas: Secretary Vilsack is a nice guy but we’re going to review all of those programs. It will be the first oversite hearing this spring and we’ll look at how effectively the money has been spent.
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