The two chambers have different visions of what a farm bill should look like, but that doesn’t mean the House is rooting against the Senate’s version. House Agriculture Committee Chairman Frank Lucas, R-Okla., said he is hoping that the Senate will pass a bill so he can persuade his leadership to give the House measure floor time. And with the House and Senate far apart on what they want out of the farm legislation, time is of the essence. Lucas sat down with National Journal to discuss the maneuvering. Edited excepts follow.
NJ Are you able to farm and be a member of Congress?
LUCAS The farming schedule and the congressional schedule don’t work very well together. Cattle stuff, you can do on the weekends, you can do on the breaks. But when it rains, you need to farm, and I’m not always there at the right time. It’s been a long time since the combine’s been through the field.
NJ Was that hard to give up?
LUCAS Yes. It’s still one of the more therapeutic things I do. A lot of my colleagues play golf on the weekends; I go home and work on my fences.
NJ What are your thoughts on the Senate bill?
LUCAS There are some philosophical differences. We all agree that the old system of direct payments goes away. The Senate did that in their version, and you’ll see that in our House version. But how you replace that safety net becomes the question. The Senate focuses more on a revenue kind of insurance program commonly referred to as “shallow loss,” which in effect helps to guarantee the good times. My personal perspective has been that the real issue is not keeping the good times good, it’s what do you do when you have a free-fall? I don’t know that it’s government’s responsibility to make the good times the best, but we do have a responsibility to keep the industry from collapsing.
NJ Will nutrition programs be another big issue?
LUCAS I think we’ve clearly identified in the House Ag Committee where we can save $33 billion without taking one calorie off the plate of a deserving person. In the Senate, they’re very sensitive—and I appreciate that. But you can’t take 80 percent of the farm bill and refuse to make the kind of reforms that will make real savings and then demand that the lion’s share of all the savings come out of the remaining 20 percent.
NJ Are you afraid that the two sides won’t budge and it will be another standoff?
LUCAS There’s always the potential for that. But if you take the perspective that these programs are here to help people who need the help, then how can you argue with simply requiring that everybody demonstrate they meet the income standards and they meet the asset standards?
NJ House Speaker John Boehner likes to talk about how difficult it is to get all his frogs in the wheelbarrow. Has it been difficult having so many freshmen on your committee?
LUCAS This is why, starting almost a year and a half ago, we put so much effort into all of the hearings. When 23 of the 46 members of your committee are new, when 16 of your 26 majority-party members have never been on the committee, never been a part of a farm bill, never been in Congress—we needed this year to get new members and old members alike up to speed. I feel for the speaker, but percentage-wise, when 16 of my 26 are freshmen, I think I have a slightly bigger challenge maybe than the whole House as a total. Was that politely put?
NJ What do you think about the conservative groups coming out against the farm bill?
LUCAS My friends on the hard left don’t want to spend any money on rural America. And my friends on the hard right don’t want to spend any money for anybody on any occasion or any reason. The question is, how do you craft the majority of the middle, who understand that making investments in rural America and production agriculture will continue to ensure us the most abundant, safest, most affordable food supply in the history of the world?
NJ What are the chances of passing a bill this year?
LUCAS Something has to happen. At the end of September, if we have not passed new legislation, unlike most other provisions of federal law, we revert to what is called the ’49 base law: parity, allotments, quotas, production based on what was being farmed in 1949. When my colleagues in this body figure that out, they will go ballistic. That’s, in agricultural-production history, like going back to the Stone Ages—when the average tractor was 55 horsepower and the average wheat yield in my neighborhood was 18 bushels. If we cannot address a new farm bill through the regular process, then you have to look at some kind of an extension.
NJ Do you worry that even passing an extension may be hard?
LUCAS If I can’t pass the big bill, I would like to think that my colleagues would understand that an extension prevents us going back to 1949. Because the cry across the country and in the processing industry will just be amazing.
This article appears in the June 9, 2012, edition of National Journal Magazine.