When it comes to economists, Kansas doesn’t have anyone more admired that Kansas State University professor emeritus, Barry Flinchbaugh.
When it comes to politicians admired by Kansas farmers, Sen. Pat Roberts has no equal.
On Friday, the 400-plus attendees of a joint session of Women Managing the Farm and The Kansas Commodity Classic got a rare treat – the much-admired duo, who have been known to have a disagreement or two – on the same stage.
As chairman of the House agriculture committee in 1996, Roberts relied heavily on the advice of Flinchbaugh in writing the Farm Bill that came to be known as “Freedom to Farm.” That legislation made lasting changes in farm programs and has been the foundation of every bill since.
Roberts, scheduled to speak first, was initially scheduled for five minutes of remarks. Flinchbaugh was slated to follow with 30 minutes of remarks on “Lessons Learned from the 2014 Farm Bill.”
Upon taking the podium, Roberts announced that as “chairman” (a reference to his new status as Chairman of the Senate Ag Committee) he had changed the rules. He’d have a few minutes for remarks, Flinchbaugh would have 15 or 20 for his presentation, then they’d do a “back and forth” on issues where they disagreed.
“All the ayes, say aye, the nays, nay; motion carried,” Roberts said.
The crowd was visibly delighted.
In his opening remarks, Roberts thanked the crowd for their support in his tough re-election campaign where he fought off a challenge from the right from Milton Wolf and the general election where he faced tough competition from Independent Greg Orman.
He vowed to fight over-regulation, cuts to crop insurance and increases to estate or “death” taxes – all popular with the crowd. He praised change in the Senate to encourage movement of legislation and vowed that there will be a Homeland Security budget passed and that the National Bio and Agro- defense Facility will be fully funded.
He said he has spent the last two weeks sampling school lunches around the state and that school lunches are as awful as advertised. He especially didn’t like the very overcooked and left to get cold asparagus at a high school in northeast Kansas. Kids, he said, obligingly took the mandatory “vegetable” plate, then dumped in the trash as quickly as possible.
When Flinchbaugh took the podium he asked all of his former students to raise their hands and then turned to Roberts and said “why didn’t you raise your hand?”
Flinchbaugh launched into a serious discussion of the Farm Bill and the future of ag policy legislation. Among lessons learned (or hopefully learned) he said: No. 1, you don’t shut down the government, No.2, For legislation to work, it has to be bipartisan to avoid permanent controversy and No. 3, Agriculture is too divided when it comes to legislation that benefits the nation as a whole.
“I grew up in Pennsylvania, 5 miles south of the Mason-Dixon line,” he said. “Some people there haven’t yet learned that the Civil War is over. And some don’t realize that the South lost.”
On the topic of school lunches and including the nutrition title in the Farm Bill, he harked back to the Dole-McGovern partnership that created it.
“Food, Farmers, Agriculture: I believe there’s a connection,” he quoted Kansas icon Bob Dole.
That’s no less true today, he said.
More than 80% of the USDA budget is nutrition programs. Take that away and what’s left is smaller than any cabinet agency. How does ag keep its seat in the Cabinet if that happens he asked.
Further, how do you retain a USDA at all? What if energy programs move to the Department of Energy, development programs move to the Department of Commerce, conservation move to the Department of Interior and environmental programs go to the EPA and USDA is dissolved? Where then are the safety net programs for farmers and ranchers?
Politically, he said, if the Chairman of the House Ag Committee goes after the nutrition title, then Democrats will go after crop insurance.
“We have nothing to gain,” Flinchbaugh said. The House has 400 urban seats and 35 rural seats, We can’t win.”
Flinchbaugh praised President Obama’s move to restore relations with Cuba and said that more than a decade ago he created a firestorm by calling the policy of the day “stupid.”
“The mayor of Wichita was a Cuban and he wasted no time reacting,” Flinchbaugh recalled. “He asked didn’t I know that Fidel Castro was a thug? Well, yes, I did and I do. But if we had traded with that thug two decades ago, he would have been gone long ago.”
Roberts warned that normalization of relations with Cuba won’t come fast and urged farmers to be realistic about the time it will take to get trade established. But he agreed with Flinchbaugh that trade with Cuba – and trade in general – just might be a sweet spot of bipartisan agreement in the current Congress.