Game on to succeed Lucas
By Larry Dreiling
It may not exactly be the civil war for the Iron Throne of the Seven Kingdoms found on “Game Of Thrones,” but a battle is shaking nonetheless to see who’ll be the next chair of the House Agriculture Committee.
When Democrats had control of the U.S. House of Representatives, committee chairman could hold their seats until they were ousted by defeat in elections—which almost never happened—or retired.
One House member, Jamie Whitten of Mississippi, held onto his chairmanship of House Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee for 46 years, on and off, from 1949 to 1995. So tight was his control of U.S. agriculture spending, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s headquarters was renamed in Whitten’s honor, since he was considered the “Permanent Secretary of Agriculture.”
New rules came into play in 1995, when Republicans won control of the House. Speaker Newt Gingrich instituted a three-term limit on committee chairs. That rule still stands, even though Gingrich left the House just four years after becoming speaker.
Now, in his third term as chairman of the House Agriculture Committee, Frank Lucas, R-OK, said April 7 he will not ask Speaker of the House John Boehner for a waiver of the three-term rule, and Lucas will leave the chairmanship of the committee at the end of this term.
Lucas told the association of North American Agricultural Journalists during its annual meeting in Washington he will never leave the Agriculture Committee but also looks forward to future leadership responsibilities in the House.
Despite the oncoming summer heat, winter is coming—to coin a phrase from that aforementioned TV series—and a new Congress in 2015.
Thus begins the quest to hold the chairmanship. Usually, it’s up to the Speaker to make a nomination followed by a vote of the majority caucus’s steering committee to decide the chairmanship, as well as members, of House committees.
As it is now, Rep. Michael Conaway, R-TX, would be seen as the likely choice. He currently is the chairman of the Subcommittee on General Farm Commodities and Risk Management, often seen as the traditional steppingstone to the chairmanship.
The subcommittee deals with authorization of spending on things like farm programs and the Commodity Futures Trading Commission. Conaway has made no secret of campaigning for the post.
Rep. Steve King, R-IA, is chair of the Subcommittee on Department Oversight, Operations and Nutrition. While less traditional in scope, the subcommittee now works with a larger portion of USDA spending, such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.
Both men went to NAAJ last month to make their case for the job.
Conaway, an accountant by education, was born and raised in Odessa, Texas, and he is a graduate of Texas A&M University-Commerce.
“Frank Lucas leaves big shoes to fill. I think only John Runyan (a former NFL offensive lineman turned U.S. representative from New Jersey) could actually fill those shoes,” Conaway joked to the awkward silence of the journalists.
“Actually, Frank did a great job, shepherding this beast to its conclusion and he deserves a great deal of credit for what he accomplished. I can’t brag on him enough. He did a terrific job. That calm demeanor belies a raging giant inside. I appreciate the work he did.”
Conaway said he wanted to be chairman in order to lead.
“I came here to lead. I didn’t come here to be a backbencher. I’ve been chair of the Ethics Committee, so I’ve had some leadership skills there. Serving on the subcommittee, I think I’ve shown a work ethic others respect and constituents back home continue to re-elect.”
King was born and raised in Storm Lake, Iowa, and attended Northwest Missouri State University but didn’t graduate. He started a construction business in 1975 and ran for and won an Iowa state senate seat in 1996 before winning a seat in Congress in 2002.
King wants to center his time spent looking at production agriculture as chairman concentrating on renewable fuels, not surprising given he is from an ethanol-conscious state.
“If you are going to provide alternative sources of energy, you have to find ways to help people see the economic advantage in it,” King said. “If we didn’t have the (Renewable Fuels Standard), we’d have a 100 percent petroleum mandate, since the people who control retail are not going to allow a competing source through their pumps.”
Clearly, both Conaway and King would present a more conservative viewpoint than Lucas did as chairman. Conaway, who wants further reforms to SNAP payments to make it more toward getting people off the program, is open to a proposal by House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan, R-WI, to make SNAP a block grant program to the states.
“That could be part of the examination of will it work, will it not work,” Conaway said. “It may be a little aggressive at the point the block grants kick in. You need to see if you could do that. There needs to be a better way forward towards the safety net.”
Conaway said, as an accountant, he would expect an objective look at the issue.
“I hope that if I’m the chair, we’ll have a new group of young, fire-breathing members all full of spit and vinegar and ready to go to work.”
As for programs in a 2019 farm bill, Conaway said, that depends on the success or failure of programs in the still-to-be-implemented 2014 farm bill.
“Will the new options for insurance work? How about the new MILC (Milk Income Loss Contract) program? Much of the question of what will be in a new farm bill will depend on the success of these programs,” Conaway said. “I don’t think we’ll be moving away from the emphasis on crop insurance.
“The first step is to see what’s working. Secretary (of Agriculture Tom) Vilsack and his team are working 90 miles an hour to implement the changes. I anticipate it going well. We’ll watch it, of course, but we’ll stay out of the way. I also want to thank the hardworking folks at FSA (Farm Service Agency) and NRCS (Natural Resources Conservation Service) for what they’ll do to help their farmers get what they need. They work long hours and they need our thanks.”
King’s politics have been viewed as far more to the right of Conaway, being a hardline proponent of immigration laws and to in finding ways to neutralize California’s Proposition 2, which was passed by voters in 2008 by 63 percent to 37 percent, requiring “calves raised for veal, egg-laying hens and pregnant pigs be confined only in ways that allow these animals to lie down, stand up, fully extend their limbs and turn around freely.”
“I don’t want to get into a fight,” King said with a smile, “but sometimes, even if you try and talk to people in kind and gentle terms and then you have to talk to them in a way they’ll understand it.”
King also said “states cannot be gaming the system” of increasing assistance from the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program to decrease federal reductions of SNAP.
LIHEAP, or “heat and eat,” had allowed some states to be eligible for increased SNAP benefits by sending $1 LIHEAP checks to households. As part of the new farm bill, Congress raised the threshold to $20, which some lawmakers and the Congressional Budget Office said would help lead to $8.6 billion in savings over 10 years.
However, seven of the 17 LIHEAP states have said they will raise their $1 payments to $20 in order to continue the increased SNAP funding. The states include Connecticut, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Oregon, Montana, Massachusetts and New York.
“They know the rules, and they’ve tried to multiply dollars to people who are gaming the system,” King said. “If we get the information, we’ll have hearings. I have several pieces of legislation ready. One addresses welfare to work. They will be discussion topics. We can’t have governors thumbing their noses at Congress.
Conaway also was asked if he had an opinion about a possible return of Rep. Tim Huelskamp, R-KS, to the committee. Boehner removed Huelskamp from his position on the agriculture committee last year.
“I’m revenue neutral on the issue, so to speak,” Conaway said. “If Tim wants to be on the Agriculture Committee and can convince the Steering Committee that he’s an appropriate member to represent production agriculture from Kansas, great. If not, that’s fine, too.”
Larry Dreiling can be reached by phone at 785-628-1117 or by email at email@example.com.