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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