Pat Roberts has two words to explain the total gridlock in Congress for the last five years: Harry Reid.
The incumbent Republican Senator invoked the name so many times in the general election season's second debate between statewide candidates at the Kansas State Fair on Saturday that it became a laugh line for supporters of his opponent, Independent Greg Orman.
The season's first debate between incumbent Republican Governor Sam Brownback and Democrat challenger Paul Davis, ended five minutes before the Roberts/Orman debate began.
Some of the standing-room-only crowd of more than 3,000 left the Bentz and Young Injury Lawyers Arena after the gubernatorial debate, but those left mostly filled the 2,500 available seats in the arena.
In the debate, Orman mostly stressed his non-partisan stance and his problem solving approach. Roberts leaned heavily on his experience, his history of working for Kansas and his "backbone" in standing up to the Obama administration.
Orman, who grew up in a single parent household supported by his mother, recalled the struggles of growing up with 5 siblings and a mom who struggled to make ends meet. He talked about gratitude to public education and opportunity that allowed him to become an independent businessman who has started several companies and still owns a portfolio of businesses based mostly in northeast Kansas.
Roberts talked about the importance of Republicans taking control of the Senate so they end the gridlock that has made this Congress the least productive in American history, which he blamed on the leadership of Senate President Harry Reid, who he said has blocked Senators from voting on more than 350 bills passed by the House.
The format of the debate allowed the candidates to start with statements, answer questions that were pre-selected and make closing statements.
Waters of the U.S.
On the question of the federal Environmental Protection Agency and Army Corps of Engineers proposed rule clarifying the Clean Water Act, Roberts said he does not support the federal government taking all the waters of the U.S., including farm ponds and ditches. He said the EPA wants farm ponds to be forced to be "clean enough to swim in" and said that he has urged EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy to "back off."
He said that his impression from conversations is that McCarthy will back off, but only until after the election, then EPA will resume its push for more regulatory control.
McCarthy and other top EPA officials have repeatedly said that the intent of the rule is not to change any regulations of agricultural lands, but numerous farm groups have analyzed the rule and found multiple concerns about how it might be applied to vastly increase the control of the EPA.
Davis said he agrees with Roberts that farm ponds should not be regulated but suggested that Roberts should engage his staff in writing language that would specifically exempt farming operations and submit that to EPA, which Roberts promptly said had already been done. A bill to force that is pending he said, but Harry Reid won't let it come to a vote.
The Democrat Disappearance
One question of the debate centered on the withdrawal from the race of Democrat Chad Taylor, who pulled out on the last day to withdraw after polls showed that head-to-head Orman led Roberts in polling and that a 3-way race would be an issue.
Roberts said that in his long political career, this has been the first time he has seen the national Democratic Party working to get a Democrat off the ballot and suggested that the move was orchestrated to support Orman, who is actually a liberal and a Democrat.
Orman countered that the withdrawal came as a surprise to his campaign and his only role was leading in the polls.
"My reason for being an independent in this race is that I have tried out both parties and quite frankly been disappointed in both. I don't want to be a partisan who is tied to party lines or positions. I want to be a common sense legislator looking for way to solve problems. We need people who want to solve problems and make that their focus instead of positioning to get re-elected."
Questioned about the need for a Kansas Senator to have more than "semi-permanent" residency an issue that arose in Roberts' primary campaign against Tea Party challenger Milton Wolf, caused Roberts to demonstrate the most fire of the entire debate.
"I am a 4th generation Kansan. The job my fellow Kansans elected me to is in Washington, D.C., but my home is Dodge City," he said. "I know more about Kansas that anybody on this stage. I have been corner to corner and border to border."
Orman said that he said he doesn't think it matters where a member of Congress actually lives most of the time.
"It is not where they live, it is how they vote," he said. "And the reality is that Pat Roberts, in recent years, has taken a sharp turn to the right. He voted against the Farm Bill, against NBAF, against funding for veteran programs – all things he supported for years."
In rebuttal, Roberts said that he is the "father of NBAF," a claim strongly supported by the presence of the BioSecurity Research Institute on the campus of Kansas State University, which is named – by no co-incidence – Pat Roberts Hall. But also one belied by the fact that under extreme partisan pressure, he did vote against funding the project.
On the question of how Congress should move to handle the immigration crisis, most recently highlighted by thousands of unaccompanied children from Central and South America crossing the border with Mexico, Orman said that both parties in Congress have had multiple chances to solve the problem and they haven't.
"The reality is that without immigrant labor, whole towns in western Kansas would go away and the Kansas economy would be decimated," Orman said.
At the same time, he said, executive action is not the right way to go. "We need legislation to solve this and this Congress is not capable of action because of the very problems I have highlighted."
Roberts said he wants to secure the border, offer no amnesty and that the whole problem was created by Obama, who two years ago issued an executive order to stop the deportation of "dreamers" a generation of immigrant children brought to the U.S. by their parents, illegally, and were over the age of 16 and under the age of 30 in 2012, when the order was issued.
He said the House has passed legislation on immigration but majority leader Harry Reid has prevented it from being voted on.
The flood of immigrant children began with violence in Central America in 2010, before Obama's action and the action would in no way apply to children brought after 1982, when those who are now 30-year-olds would have been brought in.
Growing Jobs in Kansas
Questioned about the lag of job growth in Kansas compared to surrounding states, Orman quoted K-State ag economist Barry Flinchbaugh who said that growing agriculture jobs depends on certainty in immigration law, and the ability to plan for the future.
"Western Kansas isn't Manhattan and Manhattan isn't Kansas City," he said. "We need to recognize regional needs and respond to what those regions need."
Roberts said he agrees that people want certainty and the ability to plan. He stressed his position as the "father of NBAF" and said the research center holds the key to a huge economic boom in the animal health corridor between Manhattan and Columbia, Mo.
The Farm Bill
Questioned about what key elements of the Farm Bill should be preserved and what could be scrapped, Orman answered first.
He said that farmers have told him that their most important risk management system is crop insurance and that federal subsidies are critical to keeping premium payments within their reach. The other critical issue, he said, is water and he believes that Congress needs to make sure that the Farm Bill encourages the conservation of water and discourages the planting of water-hungry crops in areas where they unlikely to succeed.
Roberts said he knows how tough it was to protect crop insurance subsidies in the current Farm Bill and is concerned about protecting them in the future as they become the focus of payments to actual farmers. He said the Farm Bill program that concerns him is the expotential growth in Food Stamps and how to rein it in.
"If ever there was a program in crisis need of reform, it is food stamps," Roberts said.
Military budget cuts
The candidates were questioned about how military budget cuts have affected the National Guard and its ability to be ready to respond to state disasters and what they would do to resolve that issue.
Roberts said the military needs to be exempt from the sequester. Spending is at the lowest level since World War II and that is a threat to national security, he said.
Orman countered that indeed the sequester is the problem, but that very fact is proof that Congress is broken.
"There is no greater example of the problem in Congress than the fact that the sequester exists. It was supposed to be the drastic consequences that would force the parties to work together," he said.
On the question of restrictions on gun ownership, Orman said he is a gun owner and a believer in the second amendment but he doesn't think there should be a loophole that allows people who can't pass a background check to buy a gun from a dealer to simply walk into a gun show and walk out with a gun.
"I think it is necessary to keep guns out of the hands of felons, persons with domestic violence records and those who are mentally unstable," he said. "I don't think it should be that easy to get a gun."
Roberts countered with "There you have it. I believe in the second amendment…but. There should be more federal control, more regulation. He has always stood for it. My stance is pure and simple. Don't mess with people's right to bear arms."