Don’t Underestimate Collin Peterson

FILE -- In a May 14, 2008 file photo House Agriculture Committee Chairman, Rep.  Collin C. Peterson, D-Minn.,  calls on a reporter during a news conference after the House  approved the Food, Conservation and Energy Act of 2008, in Washington.  Peterson has said he'd oppose significant changes to the current Farm Bill.   Rep. Charles Rangel, D-N.Y., is at right.
National Journal
Jerry Hagstrom
Sept. 18, 2013, 4:30 p.m.

Rep. Col­lin Peterson, D-Minn., the rank­ing mem­ber on the House Ag­ri­cul­ture Com­mit­tee and its former chair­man, may be one of the most un­der­es­tim­ated people ever to lead a con­gres­sion­al pan­el.

When Peterson be­came the pan­el’s rank­ing mem­ber in 2005, he was best known for pi­lot­ing his own plane; for hunt­ing trips that pro­duced the exot­ic birds and an­im­al trophies in his of­fice; and for the law­maker rock bands he star­ted in the 1990s, fea­tur­ing the likes of then-Rep. Joe Scar­bor­ough.

But Peterson did not have a repu­ta­tion as a le­gis­lat­or. As one lob­by­ist put it, “That goof­ball will say any­thing to the press.”

Peterson, 69, is in­deed the most likely per­son on the Ag­ri­cul­ture Com­mit­tee to tell a grate­ful me­dia what’s really hap­pen­ing, in­clud­ing re­veal­ing more about what House Speak­er John Boehner is think­ing about the farm bill than Boehner him­self or oth­er Re­pub­lic­ans ever do.

But a goof­ball, Peterson is not. In his lead­er­ship roles, Peterson has proven to be like the pro­ver­bi­al coun­try law­yer who shocks the city law­yer with his skill.

“There were people in my party who were skep­tic­al of me tak­ing that po­s­i­tion. I was seen as a reneg­ade, a mav­er­ick,” Peterson said. But he ad­ded that he had been quietly learn­ing the pro­cess, and that be­fore he rose in the lead­er­ship, “it wasn’t my po­s­i­tion to stick my head out.”

In 2008 Peterson man­aged the most pop­u­lar farm and nu­tri­tion bill that Con­gress has passed in dec­ades and got the full co­oper­a­tion of then-House Speak­er Nancy Pelosi, R-Cal­if., even though she is from San Fran­cisco and seem­ingly a world away from Peterson in cul­ture and style.

It was Peterson and Pelosi who worked out just how far they could go in the spend­ing mix between farm sub­sidies and food stamps and still pass the bill. And when there was not enough money for some oth­er pro­grams that Peterson con­sidered vi­tal, he an­nounced one morn­ing that he would trim crop-in­sur­ance sub­sidies to get the fund­ing he needed.

With a wave of his hand, Peterson de­livered a big­ger cut to crop in­sur­ance than any of the re­duc­tions the pro­gram’s loud urb­an crit­ics had achieved. The crop in­surers could fight people who didn’t know the de­tails of how their in­dustry worked, but they couldn’t fight the chair­man when he said farm­ers would still get their in­sur­ance if the com­pan­ies and agents didn’t make so much money.

Peterson be­came a cer­ti­fied pub­lic ac­count­ant at age 23 and at­trib­utes his abil­ity to mas­ter com­plex is­sues to his ac­count­ing back­ground. “What we do in ag­ri­cul­ture is re­lated to num­bers, to com­plic­ated pro­grams,” he said.

Peterson’s ac­count­ing back­ground also came in handy when he had to write the fu­tures and de­riv­at­ives title of the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Re­form and Con­sumer Pro­tec­tion Act, which is ad­min­istered by the Com­mod­ity Fu­tures Trad­ing Com­mis­sion. The com­mit­tee has jur­is­dic­tion over the CFTC.

“When I be­came chair­man, I dug in­to things. I spent a lot of time edu­cat­ing my­self, es­pe­cially on the CFTC stuff,” he said.

The House Ag­ri­cul­ture Com­mit­tee, whose au­thor­ity over the fu­tures in­dustry goes back to the days when fu­tures were in ag­ri­cul­tur­al com­mod­it­ies and min­ing, had con­trol of only one title of the Dodd-Frank bill, and Peterson did not suc­ceed in ban­ning cred­it de­fault swaps, which he con­siders “un­fettered gambling.”

But he wrote a tough title, and an army of fu­tures-in­dustry lob­by­ists have been fight­ing its im­ple­ment­a­tion ever since. Peterson said he took some ad­vice from the in­dustry when he was writ­ing the bill. However, he said “no” so many times, “they gave up on me, figured out they could not in­flu­ence me,” and sought help from oth­er law­makers.

Peterson and House Ag­ri­cul­ture Com­mit­tee Chair­man Frank Lu­cas, R-Okla., are in agree­ment on farm policy, but not on Dodd-Frank.

Lu­cas has urged the CFTC to go slow on im­ple­ment­a­tion, while Peterson fears that the agency has gone too slowly. Peterson hopes “we don’t have an­oth­er situ­ation with an­oth­er melt­down.”

This year he has turned his at­ten­tion to food stamps and com­mod­ity policy. Peterson be­lieves the food-stamp pro­gram needs to be ana­lyzed and up­dated at the fed­er­al level to re­flect in­fla­tion, and that waivers for states should be elim­in­ated so that the pro­gram would be the same na­tion­wide.

But he has not per­suaded the Re­pub­lic­ans to re­write the pro­gram with those changes.

“There is a lot of hy­po­crisy about this,” he said, with many GOP gov­ernors ask­ing for waivers so that they can provide fed­er­al be­ne­fits to people who would not oth­er­wise get them. He op­poses large-scale cuts ad­voc­ated by House Ma­jor­ity Lead­er Eric Can­tor as “just polit­ics.”

On com­mod­ity policy, Peterson, like Lu­cas, be­lieves that the pro­gram for crop farm­ers needs to be based on tar­get prices, and they agreed on a solu­tion that the House has passed. But the meas­ure will face dif­fi­cult ne­go­ti­ations with the Sen­ate, if a con­fer­ence is held.

Lu­cas and Peterson share memor­ies of dif­fi­cult times in ag­ri­cul­ture. Peterson grew up on a farm in the west­ern Min­nesota dis­trict that he now rep­res­ents. He raised cham­pi­on cattle in 4-H and, in 1962, sold them and used the money to plant pota­toes. The crop failed, and Peterson had to take a job mow­ing ditches to earn enough to start col­lege at Moor­head State Uni­versity. His fath­er later ren­ted the farm­land, mak­ing it im­possible for his son to re­turn.

Peterson said he al­most flunked out be­fore giv­ing up the band he was in. But he ex­celled in ac­count­ing and got a job work­ing at an ac­count­ing firm, passed the CPA ex­am, and at 23 bought the De­troit Lakes firm where he had been work­ing.

Some­how polit­ics al­ways beckoned. He had been head of the stu­dent coun­cil in high school, got in­volved in Demo­crat­ic polit­ics in col­lege through a room­mate, and was go­ing to run for pres­id­ent of the state Jaycees, a civic group, when “some of my bud­dies talked me in­to run­ning for the state Sen­ate in­stead,” he said.

Peterson liked polit­ics, but the le­gis­lat­ive ses­sions took him to St. Paul dur­ing tax sea­son. He de­cided that if he was go­ing to be in polit­ics, it had to be full time, so he would run for the U.S. House. However, it took him five elect­or­al tries be­fore he won of­fice in 1990. Peterson had sev­er­al rough elec­tions in the early years, but has not had strong op­pos­i­tion since then. This year, con­ser­vat­ives have run ads against him, call­ing him a big spend­er. Peterson said re­cently that he found the ads so an­noy­ing he is in­clined to run again.

Peterson’s dis­trict votes Re­pub­lic­an for pres­id­ent, and Peterson has prided him­self on his bi­par­tis­an­ship — un­til now. When he voted against the Re­pub­lic­an bill that passed the farm pro­gram but ex­cluded food stamps, Peterson said he took a turn to­ward par­tis­an­ship. Al­though he has prided him­self on un­der­stand­ing the oth­er side, he now de­clines to spec­u­late on where things are headed, say­ing only the situ­ation in the House “can’t get any worse.”

“I am just a coun­try boy, and I am do­ing the best I can,” he said.

It’s a line that should make any city slick­er wary.

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