Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman Pat Roberts won’t run for a fifth term
The Hagstrom Report
Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman Pat Roberts, R-Kan., announced Jan. 4 he will not seek re-election in 2020.
“I am announcing I will serve the remainder of this term as your senator, fighting for Kansas in these troubled times. However, I will not be a candidate in 2020 for a fifth Senate term,” Roberts said in a Manhattan, Kan., news conference with his wife, Frankie, by his side, The Washington Post reported.
Roberts has been a giant figure in both agricultural and nutrition policy and a supporter of free trade as a member of the Senate Finance Committee.
While Roberts, now 82, has had many accomplishments in the Senate, the height of his career may have been in 1996 when he chaired the House Agriculture Committee and wrote a farm bill that ended the government policy of telling farmers how much to grow of principal crops. That bill also saved food stamps — now the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program — from a proposal by then-House Speaker Newt Gingrich, R-Ga. to turn the nation’s most important nutrition program into block grants to the states.
In 1996, Roberts proposed a Freedom to Farm program that made what eventually became known as direct payments to farmers without the attempts to control supply that had existed since the modern farm programs started under the Roosevelt administration in the 1930s. The theory at the time was that farm prices were high and would remain high and that the payments would eventually not be needed.
The idea was not without controversy. Cotton farmers did not like the idea and Roberts, famous for his wit, called his committee members from cotton-growing areas “cotton mouth moccasins.”
Prices did not stay high and the payments were continued for many years. Critics said that farmers were paid money with few obligations whether prices were high or low, and in 2014 Congress finally ended them in favor of different set of fluctuating farm payments.
But the important accomplishment in the Freedom to Farm program was ending the government’s encouragement of planting certain crops in certain volumes.
Since 1996, farmers have been free to plant whatever crops they want and still get government support. Conservationists have praised the change because farmers would not feel pressure to plant the same crop year after year and instead rotate crops, which is considered healthier for the soil.
Roberts is also the father, with former Sen. Bob Kerrey, D-Neb., of the modern crop insurance program that now insures most of the crops in the country. The government pays about 60 percent of the farmers’ premiums, but the program has been praised because farmers do pay a share and therefore assume some of the risk for their planting decisions and farm practices.
In the Contract with America that Gingrich wrote as part of the Republican campaign to win control of the House in 1994, he proposed that food stamps be turned into nutrition grants to the states, with state officials deciding how to spend the money.
Roberts told Gingrich that it would be impossible to pass the farm bill — which mattered to people who had voted Republican — without the food stamp title to attract urban and suburban votes.
Gingrich had proposed a broader welfare reform program and Roberts said that people should still have a federal guarantee of food. Congress passed the broader welfare reform program and President Bill Clinton shocked liberals by signing it. The bill did make it more difficult for low-income people to get food stamps, but the structure of the program was maintained and over the ensuing years Congress re-established food stamp eligibility for several types of beneficiaries.
Conservatives’ criticism of food stamps or SNAP benefits, as they are known, has continued up to the present time. Former House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., proposed turning the program into grants to the states in 2018, and House Agriculture Committee Chairman Michael Conaway, R-Texas, proposed stiffer work requirements for beneficiaries.
Roberts opposed both those ideas, and the 2018 farm bill included only tighter enforcement measures for SNAP. All Democratic senators voted for the farm bill conference report, but 13 of Roberts’ fellow Republicans voted against it.
Senate Agriculture Committee ranking member Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., said in a statement, “Throughout his career, Pat Roberts has been a true champion for American agriculture and for Kansas farmers, ranchers, and families.
“Day in and day out, he defines what it means to be a consensus builder. As my true friend and partner on the Senate Agriculture Committee, he always puts the needs of our farmers and ranchers first and never wavers in his commitment to getting things done.
“It is an honor to serve with him and I look forward to working with him over the next two years on the important issues facing our farmers and families.” ❖