In Case You Missed It... NYT: "Riding Herd on G.O.P. Effort to Produce a Farm Bill in the House"

The New York Times
By Rebecca Berg
August 1, 2012

WASHINGTON — When Representative Frank D. Lucas arrived in Washington in 1994, he was less concerned with building a name for himself around the Capitol than with quietly shaping the agricultural policy that is the bread and butter of his constituents in rural western Oklahoma.

Nearly two decades later, Mr. Lucas is the chairman of the House Agriculture Committee and has found himself thrust squarely into the national spotlight. He is in the middle of an intraparty standoff between agriculture-centric Republicans like himself and those, like Speaker John A. Boehner, who think the farm bill passed by Mr. Lucas’ committee could put some fellow Republicans on the spot over spending.

As a result, Mr. Boehner has refused to bring the farm bill to the floor, and the House instead on Thursday is expected to consider an emergency drought relief package, delaying the bill until September at the earliest.

Across the rotunda, Senator Debbie Stabenow, the Michigan Democrat who is chairwoman of the Senate Agriculture Committee, took a proactive approach to working with the leadership and ferrying the Senate version of the legislation to passage.

Mr. Lucas, whose plan would overhaul parts of the nation’s agriculture policy and cut spending on food stamps, has been comparatively patient with his party’s leadership, whom he refers to as “the management.”

“There will be a farm bill,” he said Tuesday, smiling and apparently unconcerned. He added, “I’m just trying to enlighten everybody as I go along.”

Not all of his colleagues have agreed with that approach.

“He’s got a big problem with his leadership,” said Representative Collin C. Peterson of Minnesota, the senior Democrat on the Agriculture Committee, who has worked closely with Mr. Lucas on the farm bill. “I wouldn’t be anywhere near as nice as he’s being if they were doing this to me.”

The emergency drought bill would provide loan and disaster assistance to cattle, pork, poultry and other livestock producers. Producers of honey and farm-raised fish are also covered under the programs. The United States Department of Agriculture said it had paid out more than $4 billion to producers in previous disasters, but could not provide assistance to farmers during the current crisis because the program had expired.

Though he wanted to move ahead with his farm bill rather than settle for the emergency aid, Mr. Lucas, himself a farmer and rancher from the small town of Cheyenne, Okla., is not the type to stir up trouble.

“People can be resolute in different ways, and Frank’s not going to go pound the table and be confrontational, but he’ll still meet his objectives and move people in his direction,” said Allen Wright, who worked previously as Mr. Lucas’s chief of staff in Congress and met Mr. Lucas when they attended the same high school in Cheyenne.

Even before then, Mr. Lucas was raised in an environment that melded agriculture and politics. His father, a farmer and the owner of a lumber yard, was a county chairman for Barry Goldwater’s presidential campaign in 1964 and ran for county commissioner thereafter. In college, Frank Lucas became actively involved in politics himself, participating in student government and working as the county chairman for the Republican Party.

“Frank’s had a plan for a long time,” Mr. Wright said. “He’s been moving political chess pieces for as long as I’ve known him.”

It came as no surprise, then, when shortly after he graduated from Oklahoma State University with a degree in agricultural economics, Mr. Lucas began his first bid for the state House of Representatives. After he lost two races, he tried again at the urging of Gov. Henry Bellmon. On his third attempt, in 1988, Mr. Lucas won.

His office in the Statehouse was a low-ceilinged vault that had formerly been used by the state treasurer, and Mr. Lucas, at 6-foot-4, had to duck whenever he entered. He shared the office with Jim Reese, who works today as the secretary and commissioner of agriculture in Oklahoma.

Even then, Mr. Lucas was “just very steady,” Mr. Reese said. “He’s not a showboat. He just goes about doing his work and tries to work with everybody and is not about getting credit for himself. He’s just about getting the job done.”

When Mr. Lucas was elected to Congress in 1994, Mr. Reese said, “at the time I don’t think being the Agriculture Committee chairman was his only priority, but agriculture was all that he was interested in.”

Today, Mr. Lucas and his wife, Lynda, own 480 acres of land in Roger Mills County, Okla., where they grow wheat and run a cow-calf operation. When Oklahoma was hit hard last year by drought, Mr. and Mrs. Lucas were forced to sell off some of their herd, which Mr. Lucas said makes him well-attuned to farmers’ concerns in the Midwest.

“Watching my wife agonize over her mama cows, that’s never any fun,” he said. “When you’re compelled by drought to sell, it’s a very traumatic experience.”

The opportunity now to craft a five-year farm bill is of personal significance to Mr. Lucas, for whom farming is a family tradition stretching back 100 years to Oklahoma’s Dust Bowl, a story he compares to John Steinbeck’s “Grapes of Wrath.”

“I want to make sure the mistakes that inflicted such pain on my grandparents’ and parents’ generations, that we avoid those things,” Mr. Lucas said. “I can’t make it rain, but I can make sure that we have good, comprehensive federal farm policy.”

Ron Nixon contributed reporting.