WASHINGTON – Collin Peterson, the ranking minority member of the House Agriculture Committee, sits in his private office in the Rayburn Building.
A huge window on the room’s north side frames the Capitol like a post card projecting national power. But just inside the suite of rooms where the Democrat and his staff conduct business, a small sign sends a different message:
“This office belongs to the people of the 7th District of Minnesota.”
If one thing characterizes those people, it is farming, and Peterson’s knowledge of that subject explains why he has served in Congress since 1991. This year, he devoted himself to negotiating a new five-year farm bill that was supposed to take effect Jan. 1, 2013.
But election-year politics and now fiscal cliff negotiations involving House Speaker John Boehner and President Obama have kept the new farm bill off the House floor, even though a version passed in the Senate.
In an interview with the Star Tribune, Peterson evaluated one of the most contentious years in his time on Capitol Hill.
Q What effect did the politics of the 2012 election have on the farm bill?
A It didn’t affect us on the [agriculture] committee. We had hostility from Republican leadership and some rank-and-file before the election. We had it after the election. I don’t think much changed. The problem now is that they’ve run us out of time. To get this bill done by the end of the year, the only way to do it is to put it in whatever they come up with [for a deficit deal]. That has shifted the power from us to Obama and Boehner, which makes us very nervous … They’re both fixated on just cutting money without regard to the long-term policy implications. … There’s talk that they’re going to eliminate direct payments [subsidies to farmers] and extend the rest [of the expiring farm bill].
Q What does it profit the Republican leaders in the House to do it this way?
A They’re placating the right wing of their caucus that doesn’t like spending money on anything. Some of them don’t like the farm bill. Boehner and [House Majority Leader] Eric Cantor don’t like the farm bill.
Q How does this compare with the process you’ve been through in the past?
A I’ve never seen anything like this other than 1996 when we had a big budget problem … [House Speaker Newt] Gingrich was blaming [President Bill] Clinton for raising taxes and not cutting spending and so forth. So they did a [budget] reconciliation in 1996, and the farm bill was put in the reconciliation. [House leaders] basically brought us a farm bill one morning at 9 o’clock that nobody had ever seen that was going to phase out farm programs … We ended up spending $64 billion in ad hoc appropriations to bail people out. It was significantly more money than what we saved.
That shows you what happens when you get hijacked by ideologues. We’re in that kind of situation again. Prices are high. They’ve been high. Farmers [are] making a lot of money … These prices will go down. The only question is when … We don’t think the government should be paying people money when they’re doing nothing. So we’re getting rid of direct payments. But we want to go to a system that is based on what you actually plant … It puts in some kind of a floor under these prices in case they collapse … It’s not enough to distort the marketplace. But it’s enough to keep [farmers] in business for a year or two if things really collapse.
Q Do the delays in passing the farm bill make farmers vulnerable?
A As long as they have crop insurance, they’re going to survive … I’m talking about the guy who has 1,500 acres to 2,000 acres. A lot of time that’s a kid who just started five years ago. The only reason he’s farming is because he’s got crop insurance and he’s got these other safety nets he can take to the bank. And the bank can see, well, if the crop fails or the prices collapse, this guy’s going to have enough to pay back his operating loan. You eliminate that and the only people who will be able to farm are people with deep pockets. And you will consolidate agriculture like nothing you have ever seen. And that’s not a good thing.
Q What can farmers in Minnesota and across the country look forward to?
A We’re in a good position because the world population is growing and in a lot of the world these people are a lot more affluent than they were 10 years ago. So their diet is changing and that is creating opportunities in agriculture and in some case shortages, which are driving up prices. If we [in Congress] don’t screw things up, I’m pretty optimistic about the future.