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.