PEOPLE

City Guy Living on the Farm Bill

WASHINGTON - JUNE 17: U.S. Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-MI) speaks during a Green Jobs Summit on Capitol Hill on June 17, 2009 in Washington, DC. Senate Democrats held the summit. (Photo by Robert Giroux/Getty Images)
National Journal
Jan. 9, 2014, 10:33 a.m.

As a House-Sen­ate con­fer­ence moves to­ward com­ple­tion of the farm bill, Sen­ate Ag­ri­cul­ture Com­mit­tee Chair­wo­man Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., has ap­poin­ted a new chief of staff.

“I think my friends are about ready to stage an in­ter­ven­tion if I talk about the farm bill one more time,” said Bill Sweeney, who suc­ceeds Dan Farough as Stabenow’s top aide. “I could bore you to death.”

On Wed­nes­day, Sweeney at­ten­ded a series of meet­ings to re­view the status of the five-year farm bill, a co­lossal piece of le­gis­la­tion that touches on everything from food stamps to duck pop­u­la­tions. Not­with­stand­ing a dis­agree­ment about “sup­ply man­age­ment” re­stric­tions — Speak­er John Boehner is adam­antly op­posed to a cap on milk pro­duc­tion — Sweeney is op­tim­ist­ic that a deal is near.

“People look at Wash­ing­ton and think noth­ing can get done,” he said. “We were told re­peatedly we were nev­er go­ing to get a farm bill done in this kind of en­vir­on­ment “¦ yet we have. We got it passed on the floor of the Sen­ate twice with huge bi­par­tis­an ma­jor­it­ies.”

Sweeney’s day was not lim­ited to farm-bill ne­go­ti­ations, but also in­cluded a meet­ing with Sen. Lind­sey Gra­ham, R-S.C., on cur­rency ma­nip­u­la­tion by mem­bers of the Trans-Pa­cific Part­ner­ship. On top of that, his sched­ule was jam-packed with “all the oth­er little things that per­col­ate up when you’re chief of staff,” he said.

“I have already apo­lo­gized to all of the former chiefs of staff that I ever worked with. I nev­er real­ized how much stuff was brought to them”¦. A lot of times, when people reach an im­passe, they come to me. Some­times you wish you could just say, ‘Ask some­body else.’ But there’s nobody else to ask.”

The Wayne, Mich., nat­ive says he was ini­tially drawn to the Demo­crat­ic Party be­cause of is­sues like so­cial in­justice and in­come in­equal­ity. “I don’t want to dis­par­age my friends on the oth­er side of the aisle, but I would just say that the Demo­crat­ic Party puts more of an em­phas­is on these things,” he said. “I should add that the re­ces­sion had a dir­ect im­pact on my fam­ily.” In 2009, Sweeney’s moth­er was laid off from her job at an ar­chi­tec­ture firm and now works at Mc­Don­ald’s.

Des­pite his zeal for the farm bill, Sweeney’s route to polit­ics was serendip­it­ous. After gradu­at­ing from Al­bion Col­lege, “I tried des­per­ately to find a job in the non­profit world, but I couldn’t,” he re­called. At one point, Sweeney was ex­plain­ing his situ­ation to a former col­lege pro­fess­or when he was over­heard by Doug Ross, a Demo­crat­ic gubernat­ori­al can­did­ate, who was stand­ing nearby. “[Ross’s] ears perked up, and he hired me on the spot.” Ross was soundly de­feated in the Demo­crat­ic primary, but Sweeney went on to work for a series of cam­paigns be­fore join­ing Stabenow’s first Sen­ate cam­paign in 1999.

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