Sen. Pat Roberts (R)
Elected: 1996, term expires 2014, 3rd term.
Born: April 20, 1936, Topeka .
Home: Dodge City.
Education: KS St. U., B.A. 1958.
Religion: United Methodist.
Family: Married (Franki); 3 children.
Military career: Marine Corps, 1958–62.
Elected office: U.S. House of Reps., 1980–96.
Professional Career: Co–owner & editor, The Westsider (AZ newspaper) 1962–67; A.A., U.S. Sen. Frank Carlson, 1967–68; A.A., U.S. Rep. Keith Sebelius, 1968–80.
Pat Roberts, the state’s junior senator, is from a solid Kansas Republican background. His abolitionist great-grandfather “arrived in Kansas with a flat-bed press, a six-gun and a Bible” and founded Kansas’ second-oldest newspaper, the Oskaloosa Independent. His father, Wes Roberts, was briefly Republican National Committee chairman during the Eisenhower years. Pat Roberts graduated from Kansas State University with a journalism degree. He served four years in the Marine Corps, then spent five years running a weekly newspaper in the suburbs of Phoenix. Starting in 1967, he worked for two years as an aide to Republican Sen. Frank Carlson and then 12 years as chief aide to 1st District GOP Rep. Keith Sebelius, the father-in-law of Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, formerly the Democratic governor of Kansas. When Keith Sebelius retired in 1980, Roberts won the seat with 56% of the vote in a three-candidate Republican primary. For 14 years, he was in the minority party in the House. He concentrated on farm issues, learning their intricacies and minutiae, and traveling in a van to keep in touch with constituents in a district so large it took two weeks to visit every county seat. His voting record was moderate, and he looked after Kansas interests.
|Pat Roberts (R)||727,121||(60%)||($6,297,288)|
|Jim Slattery (D)||441,399||(36%)||($1,677,905)|
|Randall Hodgkinson (Lib)||25,727||(2%)|
|Pat Roberts (R)||Unopposed|
Prior Winning Percentages: 2002 (83%), 1996 (62%), 1994 House (77%), 1992 House (68%), 1990 House (63%), 1988 House (100%), 1986 House (75%), 1984 House (76%), 1982 House (68%), 1980 House (62%)
In 1995, after Republicans won majority control of Congress, Roberts became chairman of the House Agriculture Committee. He had long believed that the huge subsidies of the early 1980s would never return. Faced with Republican budget parameters, Roberts drafted the so-called Freedom to Farm bill designed to phase out subsidies over seven years. In September 1995, his bill failed in committee when Southern Republicans, eager to protect cotton, rice and peanut subsidies, voted against it. Two months later, Roberts persuaded Agriculture conferees to include most of his bill in the 1996 budget reconciliation bill, which President Bill Clinton vetoed. To attract more support, Roberts agreed to maintain cotton and rice marketing loans and managed to preserve the popular Conservation Reserve Program. But overall, his legislation was the biggest change in agriculture policy since the New Deal act of 1933. Roberts’ revised bill passed the Agriculture Committee 29-17 in January 1996, the full House in February, and became law in April.
A Kansas Senate seat came open when in November 1995 Republican Nancy Landon Kassebaum announced her retirement. Although Roberts enjoyed considerable power as a committee chairman, the Republicans had imposed term limits on chairmen, and the Freedom to Farm law had diminished the Agriculture Committee’s portfolio. In early 1996, Roberts announced his candidacy and went on to win the August primary with an overwhelming 78% of the vote in a four-way race. In the general election, he faced Democratic state Treasurer Sally Thompson and won easily, 62%-34%. Thus Roberts became the first House member to give up a committee chairmanship to run for the Senate since Lister Hill in 1938 (and Hill got appointed to his Senate seat).
In the Senate, Roberts got on Agriculture Committee and continued his focus on farm issues. The Freedom to Farm Act worked well in 1997, and farmers seemed pleased to be able to decide what crops to plant without getting government approval. But in 1998 crop prices plunged—in line with a long trend of falling prices for basic commodities—and some farmers demanded a return to the old system. Roberts resisted that, and bills were passed to accelerate $4.5 billion in payments and to give farmers an extra $4 billion in disaster assistance. In 2000, the pattern continued. Roberts argued that increased subsidies for crop insurance would mean less need for yearly assistance and that limiting production would not raise prices because the U.S. accounts for less than one-fifth of world production. The problem seemed intractable. The number of family farmers continued to fall in places like western Kansas, where farm communities were disappearing, yet prices were not sufficient to maintain many operations.
The Freedom to Farm Act came up for reauthorization in 2002, and this time, Democrats were in control of the Senate. Roberts was not chairman but the fifth-ranking member of the minority on the committee. He admitted that the Freedom to Farm Act “didn’t work out as anybody would have hoped” and, with Mississippi Republican Thad Cochran, pushed for farm savings accounts. But in committee, that proposal was rejected in favor of Democratic Chairman Tom Harkin’s approach: Revival of countercyclical subsidies when crop prices are low, plus a larger Conservation Reserve Program, which pays farmers not to farm their land in order to protect environmentally sensitive areas. Harkin prevailed on the Senate floor 58-40 in February 2002. Roberts wasn’t even on the conference committee. “I’ve never seen such partisanship in a farm bill,” he said. “This policy fails farmers.” He argued that it would provide no aid when production was low and crop prices rose, which is exactly what happened when drought struck the Great Plains in the summer of 2002. Roberts has tried to encourage farm exports in many ways, opposing cargo preferences and urging expanded powers for the president to negotiate trade deals and replenishment of International Monetary Fund funds. He was a lead sponsor of the 2000 law to end the embargo on food to Cuba, and he and fellow Kansas Republican Sam Brownback sponsored the 1999 law allowing the president to lift the embargo on India and Pakistan. Roberts supported normalizing trade relations with China.
After Republicans lost their majority, Roberts let Georgia’s Saxby Chambliss take the ranking minority position on Agriculture so that he could continue to be the top Republican on the Intelligence Committee. But he remained active in farm policy. As he once said, “When you’re from Kansas, you’re not appointed to [the Agriculture committee]. You’re sentenced to it.” Roberts has promoted food-aid programs that use U.S. surplus commodities, and in 2005, he opposed an administration plan to allow purchase of foreign commodities for the food-aid program. In 2006, he co-sponsored a bill to have federal food-labeling laws override state and local laws. The same year, he and Democrat Kent Conrad of North Dakota sponsored legislation to place trade sanctions on Japan unless it agreed to end its embargo on U.S. beef imports; Japan capitulated.
When the farm bill came up for reauthorization in 2007, Roberts pressed for maintaining protections against losses from weather and market fluctuations for producers of major commodities—wheat, corn and soybeans. “Somebody has to press the case for production agriculture. They are the people who are really responsible for our food supply,” he told the Topeka Capital-Journal, not those in “Walden Pond agriculture,” a reference to competing bids for government subsidies from fruit- and vegetable-growing states. Roberts moved successfully in committee to amend one farm program in a way that prevented corn growers from getting reductions in crop insurance at the expense of wheat growers in Kansas and other states.
In 1999, Roberts was named chairman of the new Emerging Threats and Capabilities Subcommittee of the Armed Services Committee. In hearings that attracted little attention, he probed the nation’s vulnerability to terrorists and presciently asserted that targets would be “selected for their symbolic value, like the World Trade Center in the heart of Manhattan.” He was particularly immersed in the issues of national security and intelligence gathering as the Intelligence chairman when Republicans controlled the Senate. But the panel grew increasingly partisan and therefore less productive. In 2003, Roberts resisted Democratic calls for an investigation of how Bush administration officials used intelligence on Iraq. The same year, a memo by Democratic staffers on the committee was leaked to the media; it cynically suggested a strategy of getting Roberts and the Republicans to go along with the release of pre-Iraq War intelligence, and then using whatever revelations came out to attack the Bush White House. After that, the committee’s weekly meeting was suspended. Ranking Democrat Jay Rockefeller of West Virginia tried to mend relations, but he refused to apologize. Roberts wrote a guest column in the Washington Post that said: “The Democrats planned to undermine the integrity of the committee by conducting a partisan attack, which threatens to destroy the credibility of an institution that has served the U.S. Senate and the nation well for nearly 30 years.”
But over time, both sides on the committee were arriving at the conclusion that pre-war intelligence was deeply flawed. It reported in 2004 that the Central Intelligence Agency had not seriously considered the possibility that Iraqi Leader Saddam Hussein had no weapons of mass destruction. Roberts proposed that the Intelligence panel take over from Armed Services oversight of Defense Department intelligence operations, but the proposal was predictably resisted. In July of 2004, the committee unanimously approved a report criticizing pre-war intelligence on Iraq. After the 9/11 Commission recommended changes in intelligence organizations, including a new national intelligence director, Roberts and committee Republicans came up with their own proposal: abolish the CIA and arrange its functions in three component organizations under a new national intelligence director. The CIA resisted, and the White House’s response to the idea was frosty. But even the Democratic presidential nominee that year, John Kerry of Massachusetts, mentioned the proposal favorably. Soon thereafter, a bipartisan reorganization of intelligence operations was undertaken by the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee.
In early 2005, when Rockefeller called for an investigation of CIA treatment of terrorism suspects and renditions, Roberts refused, arguing that the committee covered that in normal oversight. “Let me assure you the Senate Intelligence Committee is well aware of what the CIA is doing overseas in the defense of our nation, and they are not torturing detainees.” When Rockefeller filed an amendment to the emergency supplemental appropriations bill to require such an investigation, Roberts said that some members had an “almost a pathological obsession with calling into question the actions” of intelligence agencies.
The New York Times touched off another partisan squabble in the committee when it reported in December 2005 that the National Security Agency was secretly monitoring contacts between al Qaeda suspects abroad and people in the United States. Roberts noted that he and Rockefeller had been briefed on the program and that Rockefeller had said he approved it. Rockefeller nonetheless sought a committee investigation, while Roberts insisted that the program was not only within the president’s constitutional powers but “legal, necessary and reasonable.” In March 2006, the committee voted along party lines not to conduct an investigation into the domestic surveillance program but to establish a seven-member panel, approved by the Bush administration, charged with that responsibility. Roberts complained that some Democrats “believe the gravest threat we face is not Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda, but rather the president of the United States.” Roberts rotated off the committee in January 2007. Long a supporter of the Bush administration on Iraq, he said in July of that year that his support was “not locked into concrete.” He said, “We have to make some very tough decisions. We can't be engaged in a war which the American people do not support.”
His rocky relationship with Rockefeller aside, Roberts can be a pragmatic about his dealings with Democrats to further his agenda. In spring of 2007, he worked with Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts and Tom Harkin of Iowa to limit consumer advertising on risky prescription drugs. He opposed Republican-inspired cuts in Medicare reimbursement rates for doctors, and told Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson in February 2008 that Medicare cuts were “just not gonna happen.” The same year, he came out against moving Guantanamo detainees to Fort Leavenworth in Kansas, complaining that it would take hundreds of millions of dollars to outfit Leavenworth to equal the security standards at Guantanamo, and that the move could well put his constituents in harm’s way. For years, Roberts has been promoting science and technology projects in Kansas, and in December 2008, he announced plans for a $450 million national biological defense facility at Kansas State University. He has demonstrated his clout in other ways. After visiting Greensburg, Kansas, just after the town was destroyed by a tornado in May 2007, he phoned President Bush and got him to say he would declare Kansas eligible for federal disaster aid. In 2005, Roberts secured $25 million for affordable housing for troops and civilians at Fort Riley. The base came out of the base-closing process with additional forces, including the 1st Infantry Division, which was to be moved from Germany to Kansas.
Around Washington, Roberts is known for his caustic but also dead-on sense of humor. He often makes the list of “funniest senators” in Washingtonian’s biennial poll of congressional staffers. He once complained that he wasn’t satisfied with the distinction. “I was lobbying for the ‘hottie of the year,’ but I can’t even get to lukewarm,” said the 70-something, utterly bald Roberts.
Roberts had no Democratic opponent in 2002 and was re-elected with 83% of the vote. In 2008, former Democratic Rep. Jim Slattery, who had been working as a Washington, D.C., lawyer and lobbyist since losing a race for governor in 1994, returned to the state to challenge Roberts. Slattery ran a vigorous campaign, with some ads that were memorable, if of questionable taste (one suggested a rich businessman urinating on a map of Kansas). But Roberts, who routinely visits all 105 Kansas counties, spent nearly $7 million and called Slattery a lobbyist, “Gucci loafers and all.” He won 60%-36%, running ahead of GOP presidential nominee John McCain in the state. Slattery carried just three counties: Wyandotte (industrial Kansas City), Douglas (the University of Kansas) and Atchison (an old river town named after the Missouri Democrat who led pro-slavery forces in the Kansas Territory in the 1850s).