Ron Kind: Interview with a Crusader

Earlier this week, the Blog for Rural America was offered the opportunity to interview Representative Ron Kind (D-WI), the most vocal and active House member pushing for major changes in the farm bill. Of course, our answer was “name the time and we’ll be on the phone.” So yesterday John Crabtree, Dan Owens, and Brian Depew of the Center for Rural Affairs spent thirty minutes talking to Representative Kind about the farm bill, his own farm proposals, and general farm and rural policy. Our reaction can be summed up fairly succinctly: Don’t underestimate Ron Kind.

The Center for Rural Affairs is NOT endorsing Kind’s legislation. However, we always like to evaluate all proposals on their merits, and we hope our elected representatives do the same. And on principle, we can say that we strongly condemn some of the political machinations encountered by Rep. Kind's legislation - every bill should receive equal and fair consideration. Unfortunately, not everyone feels that way. While we are not endorsing, we must say that we enjoyed speaking with the Congressman. Given our experience with a few other politicians (who shall remain unnamed), Congressman Kind’s forthrightness and willingness to answer our questions was surprising and gratifying.

As background, we’ll lay out a little of the Congressman Kind’s farm bill history.

During the 2002 farm bill process, Representative Kind offered an amendment on the floor of the House of Representatives that would have shifted a portion of farm program money into conservation programs. The House Agriculture Committee viewed this as a major affront to its power, and fought the amendment vigorously. Kind lost, but his amendment received 200 votes- far more than most thought possible and a very real shock to the Agriculture Committee and entrenched farm bill interest groups. Included in those 200 voting for this limited reform were two fairly important folks in the current farm bill process- Nancy Pelosi (now Speaker) and Steny Hoyer (now Majority Leader).

Fast forward to the present, and Representative Kind is back with two much more comprehensive 2007 farm bill proposals: FARM 21 and The Healthy Farms, Foods, and Fuels Act of 2007. FARM 21 is the more significant of the two, and would completely upend current farm policy. It would move from farm payments based on production to a “farmer savings account” model. Using the money saved, FARM 21 would also provide substantial funding increases for conservation, rural economic development, local foods, and other priorities. The text of both bills is available on Thomas, and two of Rep. Kind’s related press releases are here and here [pdf].

Again, Kind is not a member of the House Agriculture Committee, which means he will almost certainly offer his bills as amendments on the floor. And just like 2002, House Agriculture Committee members of both parties have some very harsh things to say about Kind’s proposals, statements that clearly reaffirm their level of worry:

“If the Ron Kinds and other reformers of the world are successful, what they will do, in my opinion, is destroy agriculture.”- Chairman Collin Peterson, (D-MN)

“It’s a threat to everyone,” he said. “I’m frightened as to what Mr. Kind can do to rural America on the floor of the House.”- Rep. Frank Lucas (R-OK)

And harsh quotes are not the only way the House Agriculture Committee is trying to derail Kind’s proposals. The FARM 21 proposal was offered as an amendment in a House Agriculture Subcommittee hearing last Tuesday- simply so the subcommittee could make a strong statement by unanimously voting it down. Clearly, the House Ag Committee views Ron Kind as a serious threat to their interests and institutional prerogatives.

As well they should. When talking to Rep. Kind, it becomes very clear that he is dead set on fundamental farm bill change and he will do what it takes to make that happen. He is not a “lone voice in the wilderness” for farm bill change, or some kook or crank insisting on some ideologically pure farm policy. He is working very hard to win, and rather than hold out for the “perfect” farm bill, he has crafted his proposals to appeal to the widest range of lawmakers possible. And after talking to him, we also think he’s not holding out some hope that other lawmakers will support him out of pure ideological conviction (though that will be part of it). Rep. Kind did not specifically address the issue, but we think one can safely assume he’ll be working the backrooms and cutting deals to make sure at least some of his ideas are incorporated in the final farm bill that comes out of the House. That’s not necessarily a criticism, either.

Ultimately, the success of Kind’s push for FARM 21 depends on who can win the support of 218 House members- Ron Kind or House Agriculture Committee Chair Collin Peterson. But that doesn’t mean Kind will “lose” if FARM 21 doesn’t become the meat and potatoes of the 2007 Farm Bill. Simply the threat of a floor fight- and the knowledge of his near-success in 2002- will force Collin Peterson and the House leadership to pay attention to his proposals, and they may have to allow at least a few of Kind’s concepts to become part of the 2007 Farm Bill. If Kind plays his cards right he may gain passage of FARM 21, but even if he can’t win a straight floor vote on his entire bill he may be able to block the passage of a farm bill he and his supporters dislike. In the world of farm bill politics, that makes him a force to be reckoned with.

Congressman Kind discusses payment limitations:

"Jeff Flake [R-AZ] and I, historically and in the past, offered a [$250,000] payment cap in the House and we’ve gotten bipartisan majorities the last couple of times that came up for a vote, only to see it stripped in conference at the 11th hour… I have [supported Dorgan-Grassley] in the past and I’m very supportive of that today, but it goes beyond just the payment limitation… At the end of the day, you really don’t save that much money, with the payment limitation caps."

Payment Limitations:

As we have written before (here, here and here), enforcing strict payment limitations is one of our top issues in the 2007 Farm Bill. Unlimited subsidy checks are used by large, aggressively expanding operations to drive their neighbors out of business, and we support the Dorgan-Grassley bill in the Senate that would close the loopholes in current limits, which exist on paper only.

Of course, Congressman Kind is currently focused on ensuring the passage of FARM 21. However, he is still supportive of the principle behind the Dorgan-Grassley bill. But it is clear the Congressman thinks Dorgan-Grassley by itself is inadequate, primarily because it does not save enough money to fully fund other priorities, such as conservation.



John Crabtree and Congressman Kind discuss livestock competition, food safety, and environmental protection:

John: "We need to show people, too, that vertical integration in livestock production is really the enemy of environmental protection and water quality."

Congressman Kind: "That’s right… That’s why these conservation programs are, I think, important and helpful too. But you’re right, with a lot of concentration you’re going to see more E. coli, I think, in this country as a consequence."

Free and Fair Markets:

For the Center for Rural Affairs, ensuring fair markets- especially involving livestock- is an incredibly important issue. Livestock production is central to the survival of the small and mid-sized diversified family farms, and small producers are disappearing at an alarming rate. Today, meatpackers such as Tyson, Smithfield, and Cargill use various tactics to manipulate markets in ways that disadvantage small producers. Congressman Kind’s FARM 21 includes little that would remedy this situation, which in our view is a major negative. To be fair, Representative Kind does not claim FARM 21 addresses all of the challenges facing rural America, nor is FARM 21 is intended to replace the entire Farm Bill. However, to his credit the Congressman does understand the close relationship between consolidation, food safety, enormous CAFOs, and environmental degradation.


Congressman Kind on moving money between programs:

"A lot of other members and groups have strong interests in other aspects of the farm bill, other than just Title I. From the conservation community, nutrition, rural development, specialty crops are at the table now and it’s tough to address all those needs while still holding Title I harmless". [Title 1 of the farm bill is the commodity title, which contains farm subsidy programs]
Moving Money Between Programs

The struggle to find money to fund new and existing programs has been a recurring theme in this year’s farm bill process. Many House Agriculture Committee members have said that taking any existing funds out of farm subsidy programs to fund other priorities in the farm bill (conservation, rural development, etc.) is a strategy they will never support. Such a strategy is a cornerstone of FARM 21.





Congressman Kind on the role of the administration:

"I wouldn’t at all be surprised to see the Bush administration really ramp up now their efforts to help direct this farm bill and try to influence its final outcome. In fact, I met with the President on Tuesday and had a long conversation with him. He’s interested to really get into this farm bill too, to help shape it."

The Farm Bill and the Bush Administration

It’s easy to overlook the role of the administration in the drafting of the farm bill, which is something we’ve written about before. The administration definitely holds strong opinions regarding the next farm bill, and many would say Congressman Kind's proposal is almost certainly more palatable to the administration than whatever will come out of the House Agriculture Committee.




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