Magazine article Insight on the News

Chairman Will Make Sure GOP Won't Betray Farmers

Magazine article Insight on the News

Chairman Will Make Sure GOP Won't Betray Farmers

Article excerpt

It's an unlikely bully pulpit -- the House Agriculture Committee chairmanship -- but Pat Roberts sees his new post as a rostrum from which to chairman the cause of American farmers.

Even as Rep. Pat Roberts of Kansas warns against balancing the budget on the backs of farmers, the feisty former Marine from Dodge City realizes he faces a formidable task. The Department of Agriculture, which Roberts oversees as chairman of the House Agriculture Committee, is a juicy target for pork busters -- including many of Roberts' fellow Republicans, who view farm price-support programs as corporate Welfare. Indeed, Roberts' Senate counterpart, Agriculture Committee Chairman Richard Lugar of Indiana, has asked if "we really need a farm program."

But Roberts insists that targeting farmers is unfair. Of the 73 Republican freshmen, 31 hail from farm states, he notes, and farmers and farm-state legislators have been loyal troops in Republican budget wars.

After two years of pressing the Clinton administration for fiscal responsibility, he says, Republicans are finding out that "there are people on the right-field bleachers who are saying, `Hey, do you want to target agriculture [for massive cuts]?'" Roberts maintains that farmers already have done more than their fair share for budget reduction: Farm programs have declined steadily since 1985 by an average 9 percent per year. Further cuts are ex-pected when Roberts' committee writes the 1995 farm bill later this year.

Roberts concedes that budget constraints mean less "payment dollars" to farmers, but he's determined that cuts be reasonable -- "a diet, not an amputation." He's also pushing for a bill that will reduce the "tidal wave of environmental mandates that are void of any real-world cost-benefit analysis," leaving farmers in "regulatory purgatory."

The immediate agenda for Roberts' committee, however, will be hearings on waste and abuse in Agriculture's food-stamp program which, along with nutritional programs, accounts for 63 percent of the department's budget, according to Roberts' office. While critics of the program consider food stamps a handout along the lines of farm price supports, Roberts believes the comparison is unfair.

"There are people who describe the farm program as a welfare program," he says. "Every time we have heard the exhortation that we go to a more market-oriented farm policy, the same people want to turn around and use the farm as a public utility: `Don't export to China and don't export to Russia because of [grain embargoes]. …

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