Ag Chairman: ‘The safety net still has to exist.’

House Agriculture Committee Chairman Rep. Frank Lucas, R-Okla., right, accompanied by the committee's ranking Democrat, Rep. Collin Peterson, D-Minn., digs into paperwork as the panel meets to consider proposals to the 2013 Farm Bill, including small cuts to the $80 billion-a-year food stamp program in an effort to appease conservatives who say the food aid has become too expensive, on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, May 15, 2013.
National Journal
Jerry Hagstrom
Add to Briefcase
Jerry Hagstrom
Sept. 18, 2013, 4:30 p.m.

PONCA CITY, Okla. — House Ag­ri­cul­ture Com­mit­tee Chair­man Frank Lu­cas comes from a part of the world that many in Wash­ing­ton may find hard to ima­gine: ar­id, wind-blown west­ern Ok­lahoma, a tough land­scape where drought is nev­er far away.

Many people here switched from Demo­crat to Re­pub­lic­an in the 1990s, but they also still be­lieve that part of the gov­ern­ment’s job is to save them from dev­ast­a­tion.

Ponca City, a one­time oil headquar­ters, is one of the re­l­at­ively urb­an places in Lu­cas’s dis­trict. It is four hours by car from Lu­cas’s ranch near Chey­enne in Ro­ger Mills County near the Texas bor­der. But that’s life when you rep­res­ent a con­gres­sion­al dis­trict cov­er­ing more than 34,000 square miles, one of the largest.

Lu­cas ran for Con­gress in 1994. In 2011, he be­came chair­man of the House Ag­ri­cul­ture Com­mit­tee, the pan­el that has un­doubtedly done more for res­id­ents of these re­mote parts than any oth­er com­mit­tee could. If it were not for the le­gis­la­tion passed by the pan­el since the 1930s, these places would not have a safety net that has kept many farm­ers and ranch­ers in busi­ness.

Now, it is Lu­cas’s job to de­liv­er an­oth­er farm bill that will keep them go­ing for an­oth­er five years — and in today’s con­gres­sion­al cli­mate, that’s no small task.

At a town-hall meet­ing here earli­er this month, Lu­cas ex­plained why Con­gress had not fin­ished the bill and how de­term­ined he is to get it done. His biggest prob­lem, he ac­know­ledges, is that 62 of his own Re­pub­lic­an col­leagues “for­got” to vote for the bill on fi­nal pas­sage, send­ing it to de­feat. Now, the bill has been split in two. The House ap­proved the farm pro­gram, but the nu­tri­tion title is still in the works. And the cham­ber will have to get through a con­fer­ence com­mit­tee with the Sen­ate.

Lu­cas told his con­stitu­ents that he has spent two years edu­cat­ing new com­mit­tee mem­bers on farm and nu­tri­tion policy, but that it may ul­ti­mately pay off. “It will get bet­ter,” he said. “I am an etern­al op­tim­ist. I am an Ok­lahoma farm­er. It’s ac­tu­ally rained in the last six weeks where I live.”

Oddly enough, Lu­cas’s Ponca City con­stitu­ents were more in­ter­ested in talk­ing about pos­sible mil­it­ary ac­tion in Syr­ia, and not one asked a ques­tion about the farm bill. At an­oth­er meet­ing in nearby Black­well, one farm­er asked wheth­er the meas­ure will be fin­ished this year, but said most farm­ers are too busy in the fields to at­tend a town meet­ing at this time of the year.

It’s not that they don’t care — they simply ex­pect Lu­cas will take care of it.

And so Lu­cas has been try­ing for the last two years to de­liv­er a suc­cessor to the 2008 farm bill, which ex­pired in 2012 but was ex­ten­ded for an­oth­er year. His com­mit­tee, however, can only take it so far. House lead­er­ship of­ten has its own ideas, and it sets the agenda. Speak­er John Boehner, for ex­ample, de­clined un­til this year to bring up the bill, and Ma­jor­ity Lead­er Eric Can­tor is de­term­ined to make a big cut in the food-stamp pro­gram.

For his part, Lu­cas has de­pended on his­tory as his guide in re­writ­ing the farm pro­gram that mat­ters so much to his con­stitu­ents. Lu­cas comes from what he calls “a cul­tur­ally di­vided house­hold.” His grand­fath­er’s fam­ily on the Lu­cas side came from corn coun­try in In­di­ana in about 1900; two great-great-grand­fath­ers were vet­er­ans of the Uni­on army. His moth­er’s fam­ily, the Ad­er­holts, came from Geor­gia and Alabama by way of Texas in 1905; two great-grand­fath­ers were vet­er­ans of the Con­fed­er­ate army. (Lu­cas is a dis­tant re­l­at­ive of House Ag­ri­cul­ture Ap­pro­pri­ations Sub­com­mit­tee Chair­man Robert Ad­er­holt, R-Ala.)

Lu­cas’s own fath­er voted Re­pub­lic­an, and young Frank, now 53, be­came act­ive in Re­pub­lic­an polit­ics at Ok­lahoma State Uni­versity and was elec­ted to the state Le­gis­lature at age 28.

But the big factors in his fam­ily memory have been the weath­er and the struggles with nature and gov­ern­ment policy. “We’re the Dust Bowl of the 1930s,” Lu­cas said, not­ing that his fam­ily so de­tested John Stein­beck’s por­trait of the Okies in Cali­for­nia that “we still don’t dis­cuss John Stein­beck’s name in my fam­ily house­hold. We just don’t do it.” In the 1940s, his grand­fath­er on the Lu­cas side moved the fam­ily to Ore­gon for two years while he worked in a shipyard, but they came back. His grand­fath­er ex­plained, “The Lord did not in­tend for any­body to wear a rain­coat to work two days out of three.”

Not­ing that his home county had more than 14,000 people in 1930 and about 3,650 in the 2010 census, Lu­cas said he is de­term­ined to be a chair­man who helps fu­ture gen­er­a­tions of Ok­laho­mans stay on the land.

“My goal as a mem­ber of the com­mit­tee is to make sure that we have farm-bill policy that’s good for rur­al Amer­ica and pro­duc­tion of ag­ri­cul­ture, but at the very least does no harm,” Lu­cas said.

He does not have to rely on his­tory to make people aware that the farm bill is still im­port­ant. In the 1980s, he and the oth­er young farm­ers — whom he calls the Vi­et­nam gen­er­a­tion — suffered from high in­terest rates, and many were forced to sell their land. The rates “just wiped them out, be­cause they were the most ex­posed, the most lever­aged,” he said.

And while crop prices have been high in re­cent years, west­ern Ok­lahoma has struggled with drought. Without crop in­sur­ance, many farm­ers would have gone un­der.

Lu­cas, who is proud of in­creas­ing con­ser­va­tion spend­ing when there was money avail­able in the 2002 farm bill, is de­term­ined to write a farm bill this year that will work for all sec­tions of the coun­try. That means bal­an­cing com­pet­ing in­terests.

Lu­cas has in­sisted that the next farm bill con­tain a com­mod­ity pro­gram based on tar­get prices that will make sure farm­ers get a gov­ern­ment pay­ment if prices fall sharply. Rice and pea­nut grow­ers say such a pro­gram is vi­tal, but corn and soy­bean grow­ers want a pro­gram that would make pay­ments on losses not covered by crop in­sur­ance. Lu­cas is lucky be­cause his rank­ing mem­ber, Col­lin Peterson, D-Minn., agrees with him about tar­get prices.

“The safety net still has to ex­ist,” Lu­cas said. “Avoid the ‘80s. Avoid the 1930s. That’s where I come from.”

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