PONCA CITY, Okla.—House Agriculture Committee Chairman Frank Lucas comes from a part of the world that many in Washington may find hard to imagine: arid, wind-blown western Oklahoma, a tough landscape where drought is never far away.
Many people here switched from Democrat to Republican in the 1990s, but they also still believe that part of the government's job is to save them from devastation.
Ponca City, a onetime oil headquarters, is one of the relatively urban places in Lucas's district. It is four hours by car from Lucas's ranch near Cheyenne in Roger Mills County near the Texas border. But that's life when you represent a congressional district covering more than 34,000 square miles, one of the largest.
Lucas ran for Congress in 1994. In 2011, he became chairman of the House Agriculture Committee, the panel that has undoubtedly done more for residents of these remote parts than any other committee could. If it were not for the legislation passed by the panel since the 1930s, these places would not have a safety net that has kept many farmers and ranchers in business.
Now, it is Lucas's job to deliver another farm bill that will keep them going for another five years—and in today's congressional climate, that's no small task.
At a town-hall meeting here earlier this month, Lucas explained why Congress had not finished the bill and how determined he is to get it done. His biggest problem, he acknowledges, is that 62 of his own Republican colleagues "forgot" to vote for the bill on final passage, sending it to defeat. Now, the bill has been split in two. The House approved the farm program, but the nutrition title is still in the works. And the chamber will have to get through a conference committee with the Senate.
Lucas told his constituents that he has spent two years educating new committee members on farm and nutrition policy, but that it may ultimately pay off. "It will get better," he said. "I am an eternal optimist. I am an Oklahoma farmer. It's actually rained in the last six weeks where I live."
Oddly enough, Lucas's Ponca City constituents were more interested in talking about possible military action in Syria, and not one asked a question about the farm bill. At another meeting in nearby Blackwell, one farmer asked whether the measure will be finished this year, but said most farmers are too busy in the fields to attend a town meeting at this time of the year.
It's not that they don't care—they simply expect Lucas will take care of it.
And so Lucas has been trying for the last two years to deliver a successor to the 2008 farm bill, which expired in 2012 but was extended for another year. His committee, however, can only take it so far. House leadership often has its own ideas, and it sets the agenda. Speaker John Boehner, for example, declined until this year to bring up the bill, and Majority Leader Eric Cantor is determined to make a big cut in the food-stamp program.
For his part, Lucas has depended on history as his guide in rewriting the farm program that matters so much to his constituents. Lucas comes from what he calls "a culturally divided household." His grandfather's family on the Lucas side came from corn country in Indiana in about 1900; two great-great-grandfathers were veterans of the Union army. His mother's family, the Aderholts, came from Georgia and Alabama by way of Texas in 1905; two great-grandfathers were veterans of the Confederate army. (Lucas is a distant relative of House Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee Chairman Robert Aderholt, R-Ala.)
Lucas's own father voted Republican, and young Frank, now 53, became active in Republican politics at Oklahoma State University and was elected to the state Legislature at age 28.
But the big factors in his family memory have been the weather and the struggles with nature and government policy. "We're the Dust Bowl of the 1930s," Lucas said, noting that his family so detested John Steinbeck's portrait of the Okies in California that "we still don't discuss John Steinbeck's name in my family household. We just don't do it." In the 1940s, his grandfather on the Lucas side moved the family to Oregon for two years while he worked in a shipyard, but they came back. His grandfather explained, "The Lord did not intend for anybody to wear a raincoat to work two days out of three."
Noting that his home county had more than 14,000 people in 1930 and about 3,650 in the 2010 census, Lucas said he is determined to be a chairman who helps future generations of Oklahomans stay on the land.
"My goal as a member of the committee is to make sure that we have farm-bill policy that's good for rural America and production of agriculture, but at the very least does no harm," Lucas said.
He does not have to rely on history to make people aware that the farm bill is still important. In the 1980s, he and the other young farmers—whom he calls the Vietnam generation—suffered from high interest rates, and many were forced to sell their land. The rates "just wiped them out, because they were the most exposed, the most leveraged," he said.
And while crop prices have been high in recent years, western Oklahoma has struggled with drought. Without crop insurance, many farmers would have gone under.
Lucas, who is proud of increasing conservation spending when there was money available in the 2002 farm bill, is determined to write a farm bill this year that will work for all sections of the country. That means balancing competing interests.
Lucas has insisted that the next farm bill contain a commodity program based on target prices that will make sure farmers get a government payment if prices fall sharply. Rice and peanut growers say such a program is vital, but corn and soybean growers want a program that would make payments on losses not covered by crop insurance. Lucas is lucky because his ranking member, Collin Peterson, D-Minn., agrees with him about target prices.
"The safety net still has to exist," Lucas said. "Avoid the '80s. Avoid the 1930s. That's where I come from."