The Enid News and Eagle, Enid, OK

March 26, 2011

Head of the class

Lucas teaching farm bill 101 to congressional newbies

By Robert Barron, Staff Writer
Enid News and Eagle

— As chairman of the U.S. House Agriculture Committee, Frank Lucas has a number of tasks before him, but reauthorizing the farm bill is the most important.

“The single biggest challenge in 2011 is to prepare to reauthorize the comprehensive farm bill ...,” Lucas said.

The task is challenging because in his first year as chairman, Lucas oversees a 48-member committee, and 16 are freshmen legislators. Twenty-three members from both parties never have served on the agriculture committee before, he said.

“I have to use this year and the hearing process to bring the membership up to speed about what the farm bill entails. It’s not just commodities, it also includes conservation and nutrition, research, rural development, rural credit,” he said.

Also during the hearing process this year, Lucas plans to help new members understand the farm bill covers a large and diverse country. There also is the element of oversight concerning implementation of the previous farm bill and how other agencies, like Environmental Protection Association, impacted rural America.

“There’s a long hearing on those this summer, and we’ve got a whole bunch of new puppies, and a year in which we all together need to learn

and relearn about the farm bill,” Lucas said.

Among those lessons will be a crash course on financing so committee members will understand the process during mark up of the bill next year. The previous bill, approved in 2010, was written before concern about the nation’s deficit rose. Lucas said there will be reduced spending this year.

“If you go around the country as a whole, in rural America, most folks want to keep programs we don’t have the money to keep,” he said. “When we sit down to make decisions we must be very thoughtful and work hard to keep the things that are most important, because dollar-wise some things are going away,” Lucas said.

Lucas also is telling people that everything is on the table.

When people think about the farm bill they think of commodities, but between 75 percent and 78 percent of the bill outlines feeding initiatives, food stamps and other programs, which leaves about 20 percent for commodities, research and other ag-related activity.

“Some of the older members have said the reason food stamps were put into the farm bill in 1960 was because the number of people in the country declined and they didn’t have enough political votes to pass the farm bill. By including the nutrition title they increased enough votes to pass the whole package, “ Lucas said.

The problem is the role reversed itself to where nutrition is the largest part, and the commodity section is the smallest. The traditional agriculture focus has become the smallest part of the farm bill, Lucas said.

The bill has a strong conservation title, which appeals to every fisherman, hunter, ecologist and others, he said, but it does not matter how good the policies are if they do not write a bill that is do-able across the floor, Lucas said.

“We must have good policy for rural America, but we must do it so the majority of people will pass it and the president will sign it. President Obama is a Chicago guy and doesn’t have the background in agriculture in rural America,” Lucas said.

Lucas said they also must get the bill on the president’s desk before he starts campaigning, because the present bill expires in 2012.