Roberts Likely to Keep Senate Agriculture Gavel

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By Casey Wooten

Nov. 9 — With Republicans retaining hold of the Senate, Pat Roberts (R-Kan.) is likely to stay on as chairman of that chamber’s Agriculture Committee in the 115th Congress, just in time for him to shepherd the next farm bill through the upper chamber.

Neither Roberts nor the current ranking member, Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.), was up for re-election this cycle. Other committee members won out over their challengers and retained their seats in the Nov. 8 election.

Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) cruised to re-election, meaning he will retain his spot as the most senior member on the panel. Sens. John Boozman (R-Ark.), Charles Grassley (R-Iowa), Michael Bennet (D-Colo.), John Thune (R-S.D.) and John Hoeven (R-N.D.) won their re-election bids as well.

A spokesperson from Stabenow’s office confirmed the now-four-term senator hopes to remain the top Democrat on the committee.

The remaining senators on the panel were not up for re-election this cycle and no Agriculture Committee senators have announced retirements following this session.

Farm Bill Startup

With Roberts positioned to stay on as chairman, he is set to lead the Senate in crafting the 2018 farm bill as the agriculture economy continues to take a drubbing from several years of low commodity prices.

And if some farm groups have their way, those hearings and draft documents may come soon.

“I think we are going to continue to see pressure for the committee to start talking about the farm bill sooner rather than later,” Barbara Patterson, government relations director for the National Farmers Union, told Bloomberg BNA. “The pressure on the farm economy is continuing to build and our members are saying the farm bill should start early and that it should pass on time.”

Roberts has been a stalwart champion of crop insurance, and has pledged to defend them against any cuts in farm bill talks.

Stabenow has helped set the stage for at least one farm bill priority as well. In September, she released details of legislation that would open up farm credit and aid programs to the operators of rooftop gardens, indoor farming operations and other urban agriculture projects. The move is seen as one of the first legislative proposals of the 2018 farm bill talks.

Subcommittee Standings

As for subcommittee positions, it’s likely that most chairmen will stay on as the top Republican on their respective panels.

Boozman is set to remain chairman of the Commodities, Risk Management and Trade Subcommittee, while Hoeven will likely stay on as the top Republican on the Nutrition, Specialty Crops and Agricultural Research Subcommittee.

Sen. David Perdue (R-Ga.) is in position to remain chairman of the Conservation, Forestry and Natural Resources Subcommittee, while Sen. Joni Ernst (R-Iowa) could retain her top spot on the Rural Development and Energy Subcommittee.

Sen. Ben Sasse (R-Neb.) may keep his position as chairman of the Livestock, Marketing and Agricultural Security subcommittee.

Other Tasks

The Agriculture Committee will also need to approve President-elect Donald Trump’s pick for Agriculture secretary. He has a large roster to choose from if he opts to pick from the more-than 60-person panel who advised the candidate on farm policy. The group is led by Charles Herbster, a Nebraska cattle rancher and long-time Republican backer.

Patterson said that confirming a new agriculture commissioner is likely to be less contentious in the Senate than other top department posts.

“I think out of all the cabinet positions that Agriculture has the most bipartisan energy behind it,” she said. “I think there will be less friction for Agriculture; people across the country understand the value of the USDA and [Agriculture Secretary Tom] Vilsack has laid a very good precedent.”

The full Senate also has two Commodity Futures Trading Commission nominees pending. The Agriculture Committee approved the nominations for Brian Quintenz and Christopher Brummer in September and their nominations were placed on the Senate executive calendar, though the chamber has yet to vote on them.

To contact the reporter on this story: Casey Wooten in Washington at cwooten@bna.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Paul Hendrie at pHendrie@bna.com

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