In the testy relations among lawmakers, lobbyists and the Bush administration over the farm bill, Agriculture Secretary Schafer has been more popular than Deputy Agriculture Secretary Chuck Conner. But Schafer may be viewed in a different light after the latest stretch of talks. He was largely absent from the scene until late in the week, when he vigorously promoted President Bush's plans to veto the bill.
Congressional farm bill negotiators said they were shocked when Schafer and Conner told lawmakers a couple weeks ago they had no authority to negotiate any changes to the administration's demands. But Conner, a longtime critic of all farm subsidies except those for ethanol, took most of the blame. House Agriculture Chairman Collin Peterson, who had worked closely with Conner this year in an attempt to craft a farm bill that House Republicans and the Bush administration would support, said, "I called Ed Schafer to come to the meeting. He brought Conner and that was not helpful. The most votes [Conner] ever delivered for any proposal was three." And a week ago Peterson told rural reporters that Conner is an ideologue, adding, "The only rational guy I've talked to is Ed Schafer. He gets it. He knows what needs to be done, but he's not a free agent."
But in the last few days Schafer has raised eyebrows on Capitol Hill and among lobbyists. First, he went to New Hampshire to speak to a group of volunteer firefighters in a fire station on the day that the conferees met in formal session. He also traveled to Las Vegas to address a trade show just as negotiators were finalizing the bill. That was followed by his comment Thursday that it "makes no sense" to ease the rules for some low-income Americans to qualify for food stamps because not all eligible recipients have signed up. Jim Weill of the Food Research Action Center said the remark was "silly." Schafer is coming under pressure from his home state of North Dakota, where he served as governor. On Thursday, his successor, Republican John Hoeven, said in a news release that he was pleased with the bill and would enlist the assistance of other governors to get it passed.
This article appears in the May 10, 2008, edition of National Journal Daily PM Update.