Senator encourages producers to remain optimistic
By Dave Bergmeier
The art of compromise is becoming more elusive in Washington, D.C., but a key ag lawmaker did think there was going to be a movement to find common ground. He remains optimistic and encourages his farm constituents to do the same.
U.S. Sen. Pat Roberts, R-KS, draws on his own experiences to provide perspective when he meets with a gathering of constituents.
“This is boot-strap country,” Roberts said. “Be of good faith, we’re going to be OK. Don’t become doom and gloomy.”
Roberts can remember other challenges America has faced. He can recall when civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in April 1968 and how as a young staffer he felt like “Washington was going to burn down.” He can recall details of trying to get back home after U.S. Sen. Frank Carlson told his staff to go home. The riots were so violent, Roberts said it was not safe to drive on the streets so he drove on sidewalks to avoid the crowd.
Other events also shook America to its core, from the Vietnam War to Watergate, which led to the resignation of President Richard Nixon, later to the attempted impeachment of President Bill Clinton. They were all events in which political storm clouds were ominous.
When it comes to farm policy, the climate has changed in the past decade in which partisanship is much deeper and personal. That partisanship has spilled over into the farm bill debate, once a chamber in which rural and urban interests sought compromise. Yet he reminds those who sometimes wonder if anything can get done in Washington, that agriculture has faced tough times, too.
As a lead staffer for U.S. Rep. Keith Sebelius, Roberts was asked to help his boss with information for the House Agriculture Committee. Sebelius was in the minority party, yet he wanted to try to work with Democrats, the majority party, to try to draft a policy that could help farmers and ranchers as they faced a persistent cycle of low commodity prices. The sight of an organized farm movement featuring tractorcades all the way to the Capitol and sit-in protests at U.S. Department of Agriculture administrative offices impacted Sebelius.
The congressman brought Roberts bringing him into his office and he knew Roberts’ knowledge of rural issues could give farmers the confidence that Sebelius cared about them. The congressman, who was an attorney by trade, knew he needed a conduit to producers. The House member promised to listen to the feedback. Roberts said his most important step was to take out a legal pad and start writing down comments. Those meetings were conducted throughout the expansive First District.
The most visible headlines from ag committee debates occurred from debate about food policy should revolve around parity, which was rejected by Congress. Roberts felt it was not an exercise in futility, he said, because it showed that there was an awareness of agricultural needs, opportunities for entrepreneurs and a need to forge policies to expand markets.
Congress intervened during the dark times of the early to mid-1980s when high interest rates caused a farm depression in the Midwest. Congress approved policies to help producers get through the slide, Roberts said. Those early years as a congressman were rough times and he heard many heartfelt stories from farmers and ranchers about the economic stress they faced.
There were lessons learned. Today, when Congress tries to enact legislation to shore up producer incomes in some regions, it can have unintended consequences for farmers in other regions. He is reluctant to endorse policies that protect some producers at the expense of others because agriculture is in a global marketplace.
He has seen the entrepreneurial spirit in Kansas with an expansion of family owned large dairies that are meeting consumer needs. Those families’ opinions on policies involving dairy legislation vary from their cousins in traditional dairy states, Roberts said.
In Kansas, he has seen entrepreneurs developing more efficient ways to manufacture biodiesel, which is made from feedstocks including soybean oil, and that provides another outlet for producers.
Today he continues to champion crop insurance as an effective tool for producers to succeed. In a society that continues to become more urbanized and is reflected by the makeup of Congress, insurance is something that Americans understand as a useful tool in their personal lives. That link becomes an accepted selling point for urban lawmakers when ag policy is discussed.
Roberts was in Congress for eight terms and is now in his third term in the Senate and plans to seek a fourth term.
Dave Bergmeier can be reached by phone at 620-227-1822, or by email at email@example.com.