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Published November 22, 2010, 09:36 AM

Conrad stays on budget committee

WASHINGTON — Senate Budget Committee Chairman Kent Conrad, D-N.D., said Nov. 19 he will stay on the budget committee rather than assume the chairmanship of the Senate Agriculture Committee.

By: Jerry Hagstrom, Special to Agweek

WASHINGTON — Senate Budget Committee Chairman Kent Conrad, D-N.D., said Nov. 19 he will stay on the budget committee rather than assume the chairmanship of the Senate Agriculture Committee.

Conrad’s decision paves the way for Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., to assume that post, which will be vacated by Sen. Blanche Lincoln, D-Ark., who lost her bid for re-election.

Conrad made the announcement on KFGO, a Fargo, N.D., radio station.

“After many conversations with constituents, ag leaders and Senate colleagues, it is clear that the people of North Dakota are best served with me remaining the chairman of the budget committee,” Conrad said. “As chairman of the budget committee and a senior member of the agriculture committee, the people of North Dakota will be best represented in negotiations on the next farm bill, legislation to reduce our dependence on foreign energy and renewed efforts to put our nation’s fiscal house in order.”

Stabenow said in a news release that she is “ready to lead the Senate Agriculture Committee in the 112th Congress” and looks forward to working with colleagues on both sides of the aisle. She also noted that agriculture employs one-quarter of Michigan’s workforce.

“Not only does agriculture create jobs and feed our families across America, but it is also helping us develop new fuels and energy sources,” Stabe-

now said.

Conrad later said in an interview that he is keeping the budget committee post to fight for money for agriculture and areas to address the budget deficit.

“I do not feel agriculture contributed to this deficit,” Conrad said. “The irony is, we paid for the last farm bill. We paid for it lock, stock and barrel and reduced the deficit modestly,” he added in a reference to the fact that the Congressional Budget Office considered the 2008 farm bill fully offset because an extension of import inspection fees was used to pay for a $1-billion-per-year increase in food stamps.

Ag in the crosshairs

Conrad said “nothing will be exempt” because President Obama’s commission and other commissions have called for cuts in agriculture.

“Agriculture is going to take a hit,” Conrad said, adding that the question is “Is it something we can live with or is it going to go too far?”

Though Conrad is viewed as a defender of crop subsidies and Stabenow is better known as an advocate for the fruit and vegetable industry, which has been pushing for a larger share of the farm bill budget in recent years, Conrad said he and Stabenow “are very close and worked very closely on the last farm bill.: He described his relationship with Senate Agriculture ranking member Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga., as “joined at the hip.”

The transition

Conrad said he is looking forward to getting to know incoming House Agriculture Committee Chairman Frank Lucas, R-Okla., but said he does not know Lucas as well as he knew then-House Agriculture Committee Chairman Larry Combest, R-Texas, before work on the 2002 farm bill began. Conrad said he and Lucas had worked together on several conference comm-

ittees before the farm bill came up. He described outgoing House Agriculture Committee Chairman Collin Peterson, D-Minn., “a neighbor.”

A coalition of North Dakota farmers released a letter Nov. 19 urging Conrad to keep the budget committee chairmanship so that he can fight for money for the farm bill.

“We believe that your continued chairmanship of the Budget Committee would be a better use of your experience and seniority on behalf of North Dakota agriculture, as well as to our country during these challenging times for our nation’s budget. We also believe that through your leadership both the 2002 and 2008 farm bills addressed North Dakota’s agricultural needs extremely well,” the farm leaders wrote.

The letter was signed by the North Dakota Farmers Union, the largest farm group in the state, and a range of commodity groups including sugar growers whose program Conrad vigorously has defended. The letter was not signed by the Republican-leaning North Dakota Farm Bureau.

Stabenow’s release contained a series of endorsements from agriculture leaders.

“As Michigan’s second-largest industry, agriculture generates more than $71.3 billion in revenue each year and accounts for one million jobs. Agricultural businesses in our state look forward to continuing our growth and having a strong advocate in Washington who gets it,” said Ken Nobis, president of the Michigan Milk Producers Association.

On the larger budget issues, Conrad said: “The debt is the threat, and it is incumbent upon us to get back on track as a country. We are borrowing 40 cents of every dollar we spend. We are head-

ed for a debt that will be 400 percent of our gross domestic product.”

Conrad said that working with incoming House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan, D-Wis., “will be very challenging on agriculture,” but that otherwise, he and Ryan “have a good person-

al relationship.”

He noted that he and Senate Budget Committee ranking member Judd Gregg, R-N.H., together had come up with the idea of President Obama’s budget and debt commission together.

“I very much regret his leaving,” Conrad said. Gregg “adamantly” opposed farm spending, Conrad noted, but “accepted it with good grace when I insisted that agriculture be fairly funded.”