President Obama's signature on the new farm bill has positioned Senate Agriculture Committee Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., as the most powerful agricultural policymaker in the United States and one of the most important women in agriculture in the world.
When Obama signed the bill on Feb. 7 at Michigan State University in East Lansing, Stabenow's alma mater, he noted that Stabenow has been "a huge champion of American manufacturing but really shepherded through this farm bill, which was a very challenging piece of business."
Obama's praise for Stabenow has been privately echoed by farm leaders, who initially viewed her as an urban liberal senator interested only in autos and cherries. Some were so alarmed, they begged then-Senate Budget Committee Chairman Kent Conrad, D-N.D., to use his seniority to take the job. But Conrad chose to keep the Budget chair and assured them Stabenow had been a low-key but influential, mainstream senator during the 2008 budget negotiations and would do just fine.
The Agriculture Act of 2014, as it is formally known, is very much Stabenow's product. The conference report contained some concessions to Southern growers from the House version of the bill, but most provisions originated in the Senate, which passed the bill twice before House Agriculture Committee Chairman Frank Lucas, R-Okla., could begin its torturous journey on the House floor. She also worked out intricate compromises on the conference report.
Women such as Patricia Woertz, the president and CEO of Archer Daniels Midland, have begun to rise in the notoriously male fields of farming and agribusiness, but Stabenow will have more influence than any single corporate executive as the committee takes up its post-farm-bill agenda.
This week, Stabenow will hold a hearing on Obama's nominations of a chairman and two commissioners for the Commodity Futures Trading Commission, and, later this year, Congress is expected to take up the reauthorization of the CFTC. Both the nomination hearing and the reauthorization process are expected to become forums for members to air their differences over whether the commodity and futures provisions of the Dodd-Frank financial services reform act protect the American people better than before the 2009 financial crisis or send business overseas.
Congress is scheduled to reauthorize the child-nutrition programs in 2015, and there is already controversy over whether Congress should roll back some of the changes in school meals that the Obama administration has made under the Healthy Hunger Free Kids Act.
Finally, the new farm bill runs through 2018, but debate on the next one could begin sooner than expected. Lucas said last week that now is not too soon to think about what should go into the next bill.
To some degree, Stabenow's prominence going forward is by default. Lucas is term limited and will relinquish his post at the end of this Congress, most likely to Rep. Mike Conaway, R-Texas. Senate Agriculture ranking member Thad Cochran, R-Miss., is in a primary fight, and House Agriculture Committee ranking member Collin Peterson, D-Minn., has not announced whether he will run for reelection. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack could arguably be considered more powerful, but his tenure will expire in early 2017, when the Obama administration comes to an end, while Stabenow, who is not up for reelection until 2018, is likely to stay in office.
But Stabenow's hard-won respect is largely due to her hither-to unknown management prowess. While developing the bill, Stabenow included her own priorities — such as crop insurance for Michigan's cherry producers, disaster aid, and as small a cut to food stamps as possible — but she also proved to be surprisingly skillful at handling the conflicts between the Northern and Southern commodity producers that are a torment for every agriculture leader.
Moving a farm bill through the Senate seems like an easy task compared with getting the bill through the House, but Stabenow faced her challenges. When Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kan., was her ranking member in 2012, he insisted that target prices were an out-of-date mechanism to help farmers, but Southerners still wanted them. The bill that year contained no target prices, and several key Southern senators did not vote for it. In 2013, Cochran exercised his seniority and claimed the ranking-member position. He insisted on target prices. The 2013 bill included them, and Stabenow lost the votes of Roberts and a few other northern senators. But throughout the process, she seamlessly hid any conflict among the senators from public view.
As the conference report developed, three issues remained: the cut to food stamps, formally known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program; a new dairy title; and whether commodity payments would be made on a farmer's historic base acreage or current planted acres.
Although House conservatives had managed to push through changes to food stamps that would have cut $39 billion from the program over 10 years and removed several million people from the rolls, Stabenow, with help from Cochran, agreed only to increase the amount of money that states would be expected to pay a household to pay for home energy to trigger a food-stamp boost from the $10 in the Senate bill to the $20 in the House bill. That increased the theoretical amount of savings from $4 billion over 10 years to $8.6 billion, although several governors have already said they will boost the payments, and the savings may be considerably less.
When House Speaker John Boehner said he would not let the conference report come to the floor with the Senate-passed dairy title that he considered to be "Soviet-style" economics, Lucas decided he could no longer support it, and Stabenow got involved in the final compromise. Finally, a compromise was also reached on the commodity payments, with the higher target prices in the House bill but the payments on historic acreage from the Senate bill.
Stabenow has already been thinking about the future of the farm bill. The weekend after Obama signed the legislation in Michigan, she flew to Arizona to attend the annual crop-insurance industry convention. She told the crop-insurance executives and agents that their program has become so central to the farm program and so expensive that they need to form alliances with conservationists and other farm-bill advocates if they want to fend off criticism.
Stabenow's power base depends, of course, on whether the Democrats retain the majority in the Senate. Stabenow has already been working on that, too — by campaigning for women candidates. She was known for interrupting her work on the farm bill in 2012 to campaign for now-Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., and recently she traveled to Kentucky to campaign for Alison Lundergan Grimes, the Democrat who is running against Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., and to Georgia to campaign for Michelle Nunn, who is running for the Democratic nomination in that open-seat race. In each case, Stabenow went with the candidates to meet with farm leaders.
The biggest danger for agriculture is that Stabenow, who also serves on the Budget, Energy, and Natural Resources and Finance committees, could be lured to take another more prestigious leadership post, as other former Agriculture chairmen have done.
But an aide said that Stabenow likes Agriculture's breadth and remains focused on that assignment. As she said at the signing in Michigan, "This bill touches every American in every part of the country — from the food we eat to the water we drink and the air we breathe."