The elevation of Sen. Blanche Lincoln, D-Ark., to lead the Senate Agriculture, Nutrition, and Forestry Committee represents a significant change for the panel, because her state is very different from that of the previous chairman, Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa. Rice and cotton -- not corn -- are her state's biggest commodities, and those industries have problems with trade agreements that cut their subsidies. Arkansans are also poorer than the nation as a whole and rely more heavily on food stamps and free and reduced-price school lunches.
In a September 24 interview, however, the new chairwoman foresaw no big shake-ups and vowed to take a pragmatic approach. "I am going to run the committee with an open mind and an open door," said Lincoln, who took the Ag gavel on September 9 when Harkin succeeded the late Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., as chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee. "I've always worked in a collaborative way."
Lincoln, 49, grew up on a farm in the eastern Arkansas delta. She was an aide to Rep. Bill Alexander, D-Ark., but in 1992 she returned home and defeated him in the primary. Lincoln left the House in 1996 when she was pregnant with twin boys, now 13. She won the seat of Sen. Dale Bumpers, D-Ark., when he did not seek re-election in 1998. Her voting record has placed her toward the center of the Senate in National Journal's annual vote ratings in recent years.
Edited excerpts from the interview follow, and a full transcript is available on NationalJournal.com.
NJ: You are the first woman, and the first senator from Arkansas, to chair the Agriculture Committee. You are also one of the younger senators to assume the position. If you keep getting re-elected, you could be in this job for a long time. What do you most want to accomplish in the short term and in the long run?
Lincoln: There are so many issues that we deal with that people are not aware of -- child nutrition, which is obviously on our plate right now; rural development; the farm bill and its implementation, an ever-evolving issue; the [Commodity Futures Trading Commission]. People don't realize we have jurisdiction over the commodity-futures industry and the regulatory regime there. I want to weigh in on [trade], and I am pleased that my Finance Committee position dovetails with that. One of the legacies that I would like is to try to build a greater understanding among the entire body of the Senate about agriculture.
Those of us that sit on the Ag committee do it pretty much because we have a large constituency for ag in our states. It's near and dear to our hearts. Some of us come from farm families. It is a very bipartisan committee that has a tremendous effort in building good relationships over regional differences.
I want people in the Senate and people in this country to understand the important role that agriculture has and that rural America has in this country. It gets underestimated. Agriculture issues are not necessarily glamorous. Other members are not as apt to pay as much attention to them. It's important for us to elevate the issues, to remind Americans about hardworking farm families and what they do day in and day out. We have a trade deficit now, but we still have a trade surplus in ag.
NJ: How does the government justify giving larger farm-subsidy payments to Southern farmers than to those in other regions?
Lincoln: If you are an effective agricultural producer, you grow or you produce what you are suited to grow or produce. In the South, we are more suited to crops like rice and cotton because of our temperature, our climate, our soil types, the topography of our land. These are capital-intensive crops. Our growers have had to spend to an economy of scale to afford that capital investment and still be competitive. We've made tremendous reforms in [subsidy program] loopholes that may have been used in the past.
The diversity is our strength. Being able to grow multiple crops in areas of our country where we are suited to grow different crops is important.
If you look at how we have designed the safety net programs, they are payments that are designed to follow production. I have been extremely gratified by the willingness of members of the Agriculture Committee to work across party lines, but also to be very thoughtful in terms of understanding regional differences, where everybody says we know what different regions need, we need to support one another in our specific needs due to that diversity.
NJ: As a Southerner, do you expect to make a big difference in the committee's agenda or the outcomes of its deliberations?
Lincoln: I am going to run the committee with an open mind and an open door, and move legislation in a timely way. I've always worked in a collaborative way.
NJ: The committee's first issue is the derivatives portion of financial services reform. Are you ready to move a bill quickly? Will Congress complete an overhaul of financial services regulations this year?
Lincoln: Obviously the president has encouraged that we would do so, and I have reached out to Chairman [Christopher] Dodd [D-Conn., of the Senate Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs Committee]. I would like to have a bill from Agriculture on CFTC and what we have jurisdiction over. Chairman Dodd has been tireless in his efforts. I do agree we've got to get something done. It's been well over a year since we heard from the secretary of the Treasury and the chairman of the Federal Reserve that the sky is falling. I think you'll see a lot of work transpiring in the next couple months on CFTC out of Agriculture.
NJ: Congress has had to pass a short extension of child nutrition programs because lawmakers did not finish a longer-term reauthorization. The debate will involve how much the government should spend to increase access to the programs and how much it should spend to improve the quality of the foods offered. Which is more important?
Lincoln: If there's anything you will find about me it is that I work to create a balance in everything I do. It is critically important to assure there's access, whether it's for the school nutrition programs or whether it's the summer feeding programs. In some cases we need to make the programs more easily implementable, which creates access. There's no doubt that, with the issue of obesity in our children in this country, that [food quality is] going to be a critical issue for us -- the nutritional value, the portions.
I've got a great example in my home state in our fight against obesity. We've seen it not only as an issue for children, but we're also seeing an unbelievable number of diabetics in our state. In the Senate Finance Committee with health care, we are talking about prevention, wellness, the incredible savings and downward costs in the out years that can be produced by those types of things. Nutrition is a huge part of that. We just lost my husband's grandmother this past week. She was a week shy of being 112. She would start each week with a bowl of fruit.
NJ: Some nutrition advocates worry that because Tyson Foods, a meat company, is an important constituent of yours, you won't be an advocate for fruits and vegetables.
Lincoln: We also have a tremendous number of small farmers, specialty farmers, minority farmers. We believe very strongly in fresh fruits and vegetables in the state of Arkansas, both in our school programs and on our dinner tables. Having grown up on a farm myself, if you misbehaved, you had to pick the okra. We always had orchards or a garden. It was a big part of good nutrition in our home.
The first lady has been very avid about gardening. In rural development we can see a tremendous amount in the role [gardening] can play, not only in terms of bringing together different generations, whether it's school children in the extension programs, helping seniors in a nursing home build small plots in the back of the nursing home.
NJ: Would you favor giving the Agriculture secretary control over improving the nutritional value of the foods sold in alternative food lines in school cafeterias and in school vending machines?
Lincoln: It's critical to recognize the strides that have been made. I do think food processors and beverage groups have worked constructively to be helpful in that. Local school districts have a lot of interest in being able to work with those groups. We should be able to work some of those things out to continue the positive aspect of what we have been doing, as opposed to having too much of a top-down impact.
NJ: You fought for a provision in the 2008 farm bill to move the inspection of catfish to the Agriculture Department. Vietnam and U.S. trade advocates are complaining about how USDA may define "catfish." How should the department implement this provision?
Lincoln: The most critical issue is the safety of our products to consumers. USDA has done a good job. In terms of our products, they meet the test, and I don't think there's anything wrong in asking competitors to meet the same safety measures. Most of our producers that export already meet our guidelines and work with countries they export to, to meet whatever demands they have.
NJ: What needs to happen on the Doha Round of multilateral trade talks?
Lincoln: My husband says I am the ultimate optimist. I think we should never give up on negotiations, but I have been very clear that I don't think we should start from the same premise where we ended. Agriculture should start with a clean slate, not with the recommendations that President Bush made, which are still part of the framework that exists. We clearly did not get a response from the other countries of their intention to reciprocate.
NJ: After a World Trade Organization panel said that Brazil could institute retaliatory tariffs to respond to U.S. cotton subsidies, some farm groups have said that U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk should ask the WTO to set up another panel to look at U.S. export credits. Do you agree?
Lincoln: The injuries that [Brazil] requested were $4 billion and they ended up with $230 million. Clearly, the WTO did not find much injury. There was no consideration in the WTO decisions of the changes that were made in the cotton program. I have a tendency to agree. However, going back and revisiting that sometimes opens up another can of worms. I can see both sides of that.
NJ: You've been a big promoter of biofuels, but you also oppose the House-passed cap-and-trade proposal. Can the United States do anything about climate change?
Lincoln: Absolutely. I think we will have a couple more hearings on climate change in the Ag Committee. We should have priorities and objectives to lower our carbon emissions, to definitely lower our dependence on foreign oil, and to seize the opportunity this challenge presents us.
I do believe that there is a problem. There are some in the body that believe there is no problem, and there are others in our body that believe the problem is beyond hope or that we have to act so immediately that it will affect our economy. I am in the middle. I believe that there is something that needs to be done. We have a great opportunity to create jobs and to lessen our dependence on foreign oil and depend on our own domestic resources. I think there is a great opportunity for agriculture....
The energy bill we did in the Energy Committee does a tremendous job in moving us toward the real issue of changing our old energy economy into a new energy economy and shifting our focus in creating a greater balance in renewable fuels. I pushed really hard in that committee to bring all those communities to the table, making sure that if what we are going to do is incentivize renewable fuels, that we don't put all of our eggs in one basket as we've seen in the past....
As far as cap-and-trade is concerned, I am concerned that agriculture has not had enough of a say in what has been going on. In terms of the Waxman-Markey bill, I've got concerns there. I've also got concerns that when we talk about actually capping -- making finite -- the marketplace for these carbon credits that are going to be traded, agriculture also does not have the allowances or the mechanisms to be able to get the positive aspect out of what might happen in a cap-and-trade [system].
I have real concerns that we have definitely not done the research or have a good enough understanding of what kind of a consequence [cap-and-trade] is going to have on consumers in the price of food, both domestically and globally. For every one American mouth we feed, we feed 20 mouths globally. There is a lot we have not peeled back and looked at in terms of how it is going to work -- the trading of those credits, what it is going to do to low-income [people].... I am pleased the majority leader seems to have recognized that this is going to be pushed to next year so that we can have further discussion and further investigation.
NJ: On the day you became chairwoman, a reporter asked whether the new position would help in your Senate race next year. You replied, "I certainly hope so." How does the race look to you?
Lincoln: [The chairmanship] is near and dear to my heart, but it is near and dear to the hearts of Arkansans. I have been very grateful and proud of the response from my home state. It is not going to make [my election] a shoo-in by any stretch of the imagination. I don't take anything for granted in election cycles. I've worked hard on behalf of the people of Arkansas and it's been an honor and a privilege to serve them, and never for one day do I take that for granted. It's a good thing.
This article appears in the October 1, 2009, edition of National Journal Magazine.