Interview With Rep. Frank Lucas (R-Okla.)

Published on: 08:31AM May 02, 2009
By Jim Wiesemeyer

via a special arrangement with Informa Economics, Inc.

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Ranking member on House Ag Committee gives spirited comments on key issues

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I have covered the business of agriculture from a Washington, D.C., perspective for over thirty years. Every once in a while I interview someone, whether a lawmaker, Cabinet member, industry official, or someone else, who has the ability to capture the essence of key but complex issues. And better yet, to explain such matters in a way that sometimes makes you laugh. One such person is Rep. Frank Lucas (R-Okla.), ranking member on the House Agriculture Committee. His homespun views clearly reflect his roots in rural Oklahoma and translate into him being a very effective communicator for U.S. agriculture. I and Roger Bernard, news editor for Pro Farmer, sat down with Lucas earlier this week in his Capitol Hill office to discuss some major issues.

Describe your relationship with House Ag Chairman Collin Peterson (D-Minn.), and do you expect the need to draw lines of differentiation with him on any issues?

Lucas: I think the key always to remember is that the Agriculture committee is one of the most bipartisan or least partisan committees. In my 15 years, I've watched chairman Kika de la Garza (D-Texas) and ranking member Pat Roberts (R-Kan.), then Chairman Roberts and ranking member de la Garza; I've watched Larry Combest (R-Texas) and Charlie Stenholm (D-Texas). I've watched the kind of relationships that exist between the chairman and the ranking member without regard to party. Always good. Always solid. Always productive. I think that I am developing that kind of relationship with Chairman Peterson. Collin is a good conservative Blue Dog Democrat. I like to kid him that if he lived in the land of the Okies, he'd be a Republican. He rolls his eyes and declines to answer that and I respect that non-response always. But I think we have the makings of a good relationship.

So far, the things that we've worked on I think we've worked on together. CFTC reform would be a classic example -- an issue that should be and is in my opinion a primary responsibility of the Ag Committee with such an impact on both ag and energy and a variety of industries around the country. That's one of those areas where the challenge is not so much what we do in the Ag Committee -- we passed our measure with a voice vote -- it's what will the Majority leadership do in regard to giving final authority to a committee to put this together. I also serve on Financial Services. Clearly, Chairman Barney Frank (D-Mass.) has the ear of the entire leadership in Congress. This is going to be an example of working with Collin -- how we manage to impact the ag perspective.

Has House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) weighed in yet?

Lucas: I know Collin has in my conversations with him indicated that for some time he's had discussions with the Speaker about this and other issues. Collin has the advantage of having been one of the early-on supporters of the Speaker in her effort to become Speaker and that provides him access that is very important for the Agriculture Committee. Since unfortunately as hard as it might be to believe back home that agriculture is not always the top priority in this place, nor has it been for many decades, this means Collin and I and the committee have to work that much harder to meet the needs of rural America and production ag.

What about issues like food safety and cap and trade to make sure that agriculture has a seat at the table?

Lucas: The first step I think, and the committee has worked aggressively on this and I give Collin much credit, is beginning our hearing process looking at food safety issues by bringing up folks from FDA, USDA and the affected groups out there to build a case for what has worked. There are some in this body who would basically strip all the authority for a variety of things away from USDA and shift it over to FDA. The hearings we've had, and I think will continue to have, make a strong case for how complicated and complex the process is and the good job that our friends in the various agencies at USDA have done -- not just in recent times but historically have done. This is a body where you use the hearing process to focus attention, to get questions answered, to move the bureaucracy sometimes, and I think the Ag Committee has done a good job of that so far this year -- food safety being one of those. How that evolves, we'll see.

House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) is really consumed by a little issue called cap and tax -- that's my definition of the bill. It's kind of like CFTC. Chairman Frank has been consumed by housing issues, the integrity of financial institutions, credit card issues... when those things are completed, then I expect Financial Services to take up the commodity futures trading issues, the regulation issues. At the same token, when Chairman Waxman completes or is hopefully compelled to back off on cap and tax, then I suspect they will get into the food safety issues with both feet.

Do you see cap and trade this year?

Lucas: Up until the last few days, I would have said absolutely. Now, with a few comments made by senior Democrats, there's a little more uncertainty. Remember, cap and tax, as I like to refer to it, by the President's own projections, would generate at least $646 billion in new revenues. Now I've been around the legislative process long enough to know that tax increases are almost invariably underestimated on revenue -- nobody wants to tell you fully how big the bill is going to be. So I suspect it's going to be substantially more than that. I think they have to pass something, as that's the revenue stream that drives national health care in the fall. In recent weeks, there have been statements referenced to the Energy and Commerce leadership, maybe a bill by Memorial Day and then if everything worked out, a bill to the floor by the time we leave in August. If that's the case, then I could see moving into national health care in the fall. And they've got to have a big revenue stream to pay for national health care. That's a big part of this -- a cash cow for national health care. That's my opinion.

Have you seen impacts like what Rep. Collin has done with the questionnaire in terms of impacts on agriculture, both crops and livestock, regarding climate change, because impacts have been hard to pin down?

Lucas: That's the key challenge as the verbiage we've seen from the committee or the indications given, it's worded in such a loose way, you can't tell. But before a bill comes to the floor and hopefully before one leaves the committee, they're going to have to flesh out the details.

I will tell you as a farmer by trade, an aggie by education and a member of the {Ag) Committee for 15 years, agriculture is one of the most intense consumers of energy. Whether its the 50 or 150 or 200 gallons of diesel at a time that go in the tractor tanks to cultivate with, or the energy required to produce our fertilizer, our petrochemicals, our seed; the energy for harvesting, processing, transportation -- the energy required to keep those wonderful products in the cooler both healthy and appetizing for the consumer, we're energy intensive. So if they levy this tax broadly across the spectrum, we're going to be hit with intensity. And ultimately, the consumer will pay more, which will cause the consumers to buy less or to purchase lower-value products to make up their budget, and that will drive the effect all the way back down the line.

Secretary Vilsack says agriculture is 7 percent of the problem relative to greenhouse gasses/climate change, and 25 percent of the solution....

Lucas: (Whistled and then said...) We're going to fix four times our weight of the problem! Bless us! I know there's been a lot of discussion out in the countryside and certain optimistic folks in Congress that we in agriculture should be and could be able to be rewarded for our good efforts. We are the original environmentalists of the world. We are the people who with the way we farm, the way we raise our livestock, that we sequester incredible amounts of carbon. I'm confident of that. The track record of Congress, at least in recent years and in particular the last couple years, has not been to reward production agriculture and rural America for the good things they do. Think back to what was a symbolic requirement that we cut direct payments to farmers by $100 million. That's not a dramatic amount of money, but it had to happen so that someone could say, 'We cut the payments to farmers.' That's not a good sign. And in the President's budget this time, proposing the movement of $10 billion of direct payment money... I'm confident Chairman Peterson and myself and the Ag Committee will be able to prevent those kind of things from happening.

But the fact the administration said take $10 billion out, and don't forget my friends, we're having tough times in America, yes a recession. But look at the cash price of cattle and grain and pork and poultry (taps finger on the table for emphasis with each commodity mentioned) the second week of July last summer and look at the price now. We've taken our bite or our kick in the shins or however you want to describe it -- we've suffered too. And at the same time, we had the highest input costs in the history of the world last fall for fertilizer, fuel -- all the inputs. So we've got some challenges too. So taking away direct payment money right now just (pause), that's going past an insult, that's more of an injury.

With the budget deficits rising now and in the future, sooner or later lawmakers and the administration are going to have to deal with that.

Lucas: I wholeheartedly agree. Now the challenge for us is they have dramatically increased the baseline, except for defense and agriculture -- non-nutrition program agriculture I should say -- they have dramatically increased the baseline spending everywhere else. They have not increased it for what you and I would call the core production programs or for that matter in rural development, conservation and ag research. If they have increased everyone else's baseline spending and held us flat or proposed cuts, and they decide to have broad across-the-board cuts, think about what the effect will be there on rural America. We didn't get the big increase but we're going to take the chop down like everybody else?

The pattern is set for some very tough ag policy votes over the course of the next two, three, four or five years. My statements back home to my neighbors in the third district of Oklahoma is that I hope we can defend the resources in the 2008 Farm Bill. I look at all the big spending in so many other areas of agriculture, I say to my friends, 'Defending what we have is what we need to work for right now. The people who made these spending priority decisions are the ones who wanted to reduce your direct payments the last farm bill and did so by a token amount and the ones that proposed in the budget to reduce them more this time around.' We just have a tough fight ahead.

It's like the 1996 Farm Bill where you had to defend what you had.

Lucas: When we came in 1996 with Pat Roberts, the battle cry in the hallways was there will never be another farm bill. In all fairness to Mr. Roberts and Mr. de la Garza, it was a long, hard grind, but we produced a farm bill that would pass, was signed into law and many ways when it came to flexibility of production decisions and commitment of resources, has actually served us well. And while there were changes in the 2002 Farm Bill and the 2008 Farm Bill, the principle of flexibility in your production decisions and the principle of certainty in payment -- knowing what you're going to get when you sign up for the bill -- both those concepts have held firm since 1996. Setting weather issues aside, rural America has generally prospered since 1996.

On cap and trade, some farmers and ranchers fear without adequate research on the impacts and unintended consequences, they harken back to 2005 and the lack of analysis relative to the energy bill and the increase in the renewable fuels mandates. Not that they're against renewable fuels, the analysis was not there on the impact to their entire industry. Is that a fair statement?

Lucas: I wholeheartedly agree. That's a fair statement. My example is that with EPA defining methane now as one of the five toxic gasses to be regulated, whether we pass a bill or not, EPA is headed in that direction. When it comes down to choice between providing some exemptions on emissions, who's going to get them? Municipal sewer systems or dairy farmers? Who can afford the methane digester? I know we have dairy farms that vary from 5,000 to 50 cows, but go and ask the 50-cow dairy farmers in New York or Vermont or anywhere in the country, how they are going to pay for some way to control methane issues. I give you that as an example about when the policymakers make decisions at a different level than mine, and if there are exemptions and they have to pick between milk cows in Minnesota or Vermont or wherever, and municipal sewer systems, I have a feeling who is going to win. And that will put the extra costs, as an example, on producers.

So are these some of the reasons why you think it will be an uphill battle to get climate change legislation approved?

Lucas: Exactly. Because I think if this process moves slowly enough that we as members of Congress can figure out the details and the folks back home figure out the details and people come to understand what it's going to do to the price of their electric bill in the summer, their gas bill in the winter or their home heating oil bill, when they figure out what it's going to add to the price of a gallon of gasoline when they fuel up to go to work each week, the backlash in the countryside will be incredible. There are numbers of all sorts moving around from high-ball to low-ball numbers, I just know that the amount of revenue they have to have if they move a national health care -- nationalized health care bill, however you describe it -- this fall, they have to have a huge amount of revenue.

Remember, if you look at what Mr. Waxman has said so far, he's not talking about flat-lining the production of these gasses, he's talking about reducing -- dramatically reducing -- these gas productions. Most of these greenhouse gas is produced from energy-related consumption, so the way to reduce gas consumption is turn down energy consumption and the easiest way to raise the cost to the consumer. Now I am not an advocate of that. But I think that's where they are going. It's not a carrot. It's not even a stick -- it's like a baseball bat. You've seen the stats -- down 20 percent by 2020 and maybe 80 percent by 2050, those are dramatic numbers. You're talking not only dramatic change in industrial production but the lifestyle of people.

And your state would get hit hard?

Lucas: Oklahoma is an example where it nails us going and coming. Not only are we production agriculture, especially in the third district, but we also produce a lot of gas. But if you reduce consumption, that means there will be less need for domestic energy sources so not only will it be a higher expense and input cost for farmers, and a higher net food product cost-wise for consumers, but in my own home-state area, that's jobs.

A Democratic member of Congress would counter and ask what's your solution relative to the energy side?

Lucas: That's a fair question. My perspective goes back to the whole issue of global warming. If you want to assume the climate is changing and if you further want to assume that the gas emissions of the people of this planet are driving this climate change, then you have to next assume -- and we've got several assumptions to get here -- you've got to assume that by changing human patterns, conduct and industry, you can change the weather or change the global patterns.

The next question is how do you do it in a way where you get the whole planet to make enough of a difference to change things. In good faith, I cannot impose a tax regime on the American people that dramatically raises their cost of living, dramatically reduces the industrial activity in our country and their standard of living perhaps, while at the same time whether it is mainland China or India they belch out more crud in the air and offset what we reduce. That's just a transfer of wealth, a transfer of standard of living. I know my idealistic colleagues say, 'You've got to set a standard for the world.' But I will not make my citizens poor -- poorer -- so someone else can get richer, and then once they have achieved whatever standard they want, they decide to play with us. I can't jump off the cliff by myself.

It goes back to the old discussion years ago on the great economic pie of life. Do you want to reslice the pie or do you want to grow the pie? I'm in favor of growing the pie. I think we could aggressively address these issues through positive incentives -- expansion of wind power, solar power, putting more dollars into clean coal... those kinds of things.

Nuclear energy?

Lucas: Nuke is a part of it. Even though the leadership of the House seems to be intensely opposed, atomic energy is a part of any source of domestic energy. We have enough fuel to run our atomic plants, we have enough coal to run our power plants. One of my constituents, T. Boone Pickens, talks about shifting public transportation and many automobiles over to natural gas, there are a lot of things where using a carrot to encourage instead of using a baseball bat. (Note: Pickens wants to replace 20 percent of the electricity generated by natural gas with wind and solar power, and modernize the grid to more easily move electricity across state lines. Then use the natural gas as a substitute for crude oil-based diesel in 350,000 trucks and buses.)

So if we're reading you right, you're not sure all this with cap and trade is going to work, especially relative to the structure of the industry?

Lucas: Exactly. I'm not sure they can craft a bill that will not do more harm to American industry and the American standard of living than it will do good for the environment.

Is Collin Peterson in that camp?

Lucas: You better ask Collin that! Collin and I ... the discussions we've had basically center around the leadership is going to do this, so how do you come up with a way to minimize the pain to agriculture, how do you come up with a way for agriculture to benefit from carbon sequestration and from the good things we do.

You have a lot of CRP ground in Oklahoma. Will they get credit for this in any climate control legislation?

Lucas: They should. But in the drafts I've seen so far, I don't see any exemptions for agriculture, nor do I see any rewards in the present language. Now these bills change from day to day, bear that in mind -- this is a moving target.

Has the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) given any estimates on these bills?

Lucas: Not that I've seen. I suspect there are numbers floating around, but some things are held close to your chest.

What do you see as the Ag panel's timeline to put its climate change bill in as a marker on what agriculture can do on this front?

Lucas: Every day this process goes a little slower than the day before. Ten days ago, I would have told you it would be hard to get anything done ahead of Chairman Waxman. I'm just not sure. And I'm having ongoing conversations with Collin.

Is this similar to the Clean Air Act where it took many years to get through? This has similar shades of arguments.

Lucas: If we're lucky, this will take some time to allow the legislative process to work and to become transparent for everyone to see. If the American people decide they want to do something like this, then in a democracy, this will happen. But I believe they should be given the opportunity to understand in the name of what's being done for them what actually might be about to be done to them.

How about the ag groups that visit with you. What are they saying? Some say they have been relatively slow to come up to the implications....

Lucas: They're making comments to me. The challenge is, much like myself, they've not had enough definitive details to work off of. Remember, on the first blush, the impression was given that between carbon sequestration and exemptions and certain production areas like methane, ag would be kind of held harmless. But as the process has gone on, that's turned out to be more of a theory than a fact. And I think my groups back home are starting to wake up. It's as we discussed earlier. It's like the huge amount of energy consumed in most industries and most regions of the country, when we have enough information to project what the extra costs will be for a gallon of diesel or a kilowatt of electricity, we can factor these things in, then I think you'll see the ag groups come alive with intensity. They don't enough to be frightened yet!

On the 2008 Farm Bill implementation. Are you happy so far?

Lucas: I wish the Bush administration had put more focus on completing the process. They did not. So now we have a whole new cast of faces slowly coming into place. The Secretary is a good guy and he's putting his next tier of people into the structure. But there's a lot of things like state FSA directors, rural development directors -- they've just not worked down through the process to do those positions. And in my perspective where I work with day-to-day producers as well as the administration here, you have to have this intermediate group of decision makers or policy implementers to make things happen. I just wish they would speed up.

I know in the modern world, and perhaps in this administration, USDA might not be the most exciting assignment. But if you look at what's covered, from all the nutrition programs to conservation, there is just a tremendous amount of important work to be done by people in these positions. I want them in place so I can work with them and help educate them.

So you want to see the new group come in and see what they do?

Lucas: I'm willing to give them the benefit of the doubt, because I didn't always agree with everything the Bush appointees did either. It took us one override in the House and Senate to get the 2008 Farm Bill passed and I proudly voted for that override!

On the IRS tax information issue relative to making sure U.S. farmers are eligible for farm program payments. It's still being worked out but you jumped on that issue right away....

Lucas: It's a classic example that the 2008 Farm Bill had a very carefully crafted compromise where all the parties involved agreed where providing a letter from your tax preparer that you would attest to as well, putting both of you in jeopardy if you were not accurate and honest. By the way, my constituents are always honest. I don't know about anybody else, but my constituents are! But that letter I thought was sufficient to create enough jeopardy. Now when the Secretary determines through his enforcement authority that he can take this next step... I agree with my folks back in the countryside -- I don't think I want my IRS records floating around through any other federal agency. I don't think it's necessary and it is contrary to a carefully worked-out compromise passed by two-thirds of the House and Senate.

You've seen Vilsack's response on this matter... and they're saying they don't see the data themselves -- that FSA would send IRS a list of farmers and IRS would respond that these producers are okay and these should be checked out.

Lucas: The point is, we worked through a very carefully crafted 2008 Farm Bill. If this administration or future administrations agree dramatically with the principles there, I'm willing to begin the process to discuss the 2013 farm bill. And we can do things differently in the 2013 farm bill. But don't reinvent the wheel, because this one is rolling along nicely... generally.

On trade issues, such as one like country-of-origin labeling (COOL), Canada has now said they will pursue an effort at the WTO on what was a pretty carefully crafted compromise in the 2008 Farm Bill.

Lucas: Oh... it was an amazing compromise. I observed the final negotiations between the Chairman and the two groups to put that together. Once again, we need to implement what's on the books and we'll let our neighbors fight it out in the courts and we'll go from there.

What the Canadians are saying is they want clarifications on this as they view Vilsack's comments as interpreting the legislation. Have you talked to the Secretary about this? We know Peterson has, telling us he told Vilsack he should have just banged the heads of those involved together and told them to reach a deal.

Lucas: I'm not going to argue with the Chairman! (laughter).

What folks in Canada are saying is that this will likely be a potential jobs program in Canada as they are putting more focus on sending processed products to the United States and to other country, especially Japan. Are you concerned about that?

Lucas: (pause). I'm concerned about any deviation away from the policy principles established in the 2008 Farm Bill. I think the potential consequences, intended and unintended, may cause us more grief in the future than we can imagine now. Simply put.... this is the kind of peril you get into when the implementers of policy decide to rewrite the policy. That's about as close as you're going to get to a nasty line!

How have you voted over the years on trade agreement proposals?

Lucas: With the exception of the Australia Free Trade Agreement, I voted for all of the others. I take them on a case-by-case issue. I came after NAFTA.

What was your issue with the Australia agreement?

Lucas: I come from HRW wheat country. There's a group called the Australian Wheat Board (AWB)....
The AWB was not in the trade deal to be negotiated.

How about other trade deals pending like Colombia and Panama and South Korea. How would you vote on those?

Lucas: I would vote on the affirmative side because as best as I can determine with those other trade agreements, they improve our access in most of those places. We've already given them access to our country. It's a shame that Colombia hasn't already occurred. That's gotten tied up in some labor issues and some campaign rhetoric.. it's more rhetoric than fact.

How about Cuba?

Lucas: I don't know that I'm really going to have an opportunity to vote there. I think the administration is headed in the direction of opening up trade with them by internal action. My Oklahoma wheat farmers would be very happy and we'll let things run their course.

So you don't see Cuba coming to a vote on opening up ag trade?

Lucas: I don't know. I have my suspicions -- I don't know the administration will want to engage in a really intense hot debate which that would lead to on the floor.

Some in opposition to the Colombia trade deal are saying they want more open ag trade with Cuba while others see that as a disconnect. Is that a fair statement?

Lucas: I think that's a fair statement. I think there could be an argument there. I'm not going to be hypocritical about it. Cuba to me is a communist dictatorship still. They don't have freedom of the press, freedom of religion and free speech. When Fidel is gone, I would hope, like Eastern Europe, society would open up. I am not opposed to selling ag products to Cuba. I would like them to pay cash. If you note my record, when the Bush people went to great lengths to make it more difficult to do business with Cuba, I was opposed to that. But I'm not prepared to open up the credit bank to support the last true remaining communist dictatorship.

Now we have other problems in the hemisphere than Cuba. There's a very interesting fellow that runs Venezuela right now.

Cuba with oil?

Lucas: Exactly.

Regarding the H1N1 situation....

Lucas: I know... a sanitary excuse to keep our products out of other countries. Raw pork is not a product that is consumed -- it is always cooked, processed or prepared. There's no indication or scientific basis for excluding pork from the United States or any other county for that matter. This is just an excuse by certain countries to protect their markets a few days longer.

Is the Ag Committee going to do anything about this?

Lucas: Since it has bubbled in the last 24 to 36 hours, I have not had a chance to visit with the Chairman yet. All we can do is scream and shout and jump up and down! And, I'm happy to do it.

Farmers are saying where are these WTO members who subscribe to fair trade and the first chance they get, they put up a barrier, including Russia who wants to get in. Is that a fair statement?

Lucas: That's a fair statement. I do have a substantial pork industry in northwest Oklahoma. We sell something like four million pigs out of the country each year. So it's a bread-and-butter issue.

How is the ag sector in your state -- from the farmland market to the credit market?

Lucas: Credit seems to be adequate. There's not been many land sales to speak of in the last sixth months. I've been watching it closely as an old farmer -- all farmers watch each others' property sell, that's just a sport of life. Nothing is moving in my immediate area.

We had a good wheat crop last year. The cattle market began to fall off from July on, but we've had basically three decent years back home -- setting some weather issues aside. That's always a problem somewhere in any given season. We've had three decent years. Some of my folks in much of my best wheat area took a hammering with a late-winter freeze. A lot of my issues now fall around how quick you can get the adjusters out and call it lost and get on with it. So we're waiting to see. We had a relatively dry winter in much of my district. Certain areas have picked up moisture in the last three weeks so we have to see hold the summer unfolds. You have to remember in my part of Oklahoma and for most of my state, we measure soil in inches not feet. And I was probably 20 before I knew you could have a prayer that didn't involve a request for rain -- it's just the nature of our agriculture.

Sounds like it is at least stable in your district?

Lucas: We're stable now, depending on the moisture this summer, and the same could be said for the entire country. If the economy will pick up, we'll see an upward pull on commodity and energy prices that will put us in dramatically better shape, but we just need the national media and my majority leadership in Congress and to that degree a part of the administration to look past the constant use of the "d" word. Coming from Oklahoma where we suffered the Great Depression and drought of the 1930s, the drought of the 1950s and in effect an ag depression in the 1980s, I don't like those words!

NOTE: This column is copyrighted material, therefore reproduction or retransmission is prohibited under U.S. copyright laws.