WASHINGTON To the world, he is now Secretary of Agriculture Ed Schafer. To the U.S. Department of Agriculture staff, he wants it to be "Just Ed," Schafer says. The former North Dakota governor spent his first day on the job, Jan. 29, at the Jamie...
WASHINGTON To the world, he is now Secretary of Agriculture Ed Schafer.
To the U.S. Department of Agriculture staff, he wants it to be "Just Ed," Schafer says.
The former North Dakota governor spent his first day on the job, Jan. 29, at the Jamie Whitten Building headquarters in Washington.
Schafer had gone through a three-month nomination confirma tion process, culminated by a hurry-up plan through the Senate, engineered by all-Democratic congressional delegation from North Dakota. Pulled into the vortex of Washington, Schafer and his wife, Nancy, are contemplating life in Washington finding a place to rent either in the District of Columbia or out in Virginia, he says.
Chuck Conner, the deputy secretary who served as acting secretary until Schafer's appointment, welcomed Schafer to the department and introduced him to top-level staff in his first address to the agency at 1:30 p.m. Jan. 29. Conner described Schafer as a champion of conservation, playing a "key role in helping the U.S. Forest Service secure 5,200 acres in the Elkhorn Ranch in North Dakota last year for the Little Missouri National Grasslands." That's where former President Theodore Roosevelt ranched in the 1880s.
"It's great to finally be up here and say hi," Schafer said in a message streamed to some 100,000 employees across the nation. He said it was an "honor to follow in the footsteps of Chuck Conner," who many in the department expected to become permanent secretary.
Nancy Schafer also addressed the employees, saying her Montana farmer-rancher father would be "busting his buttons" to know that his son-in-law would be secretary of agriculture. She said she was proud to be from an upbringing of rural agriculture, where her older brother lives today.
"I lived in a very tiny, three-room house no indoor plumbing and the sofa was my bed," she said, noting that on "really hot days, we'd resort to swimming in the cow tank. Life was good on the farm."
Schafer, who grew up in a more prosperous home in Bismarck, N.D., made an effort to endear himself to the staff gathered. He said he sees himself as their advocate, as a person who gets out of their way except to clear away impediments. He asked to be called, "Just Ed," and asked that they'd feel free to approach him.
"I want to stand beside you, as Ed, as your partner, in this deal," he said, clearly passionate about the department's mission of delivering nutritional programs, among others.
Schafer, who started work at 7 a.m. Jan. 29, the morning after the State of the Union address, hauled in a dozen three-ring binders that had been prepared for him for the Senate Agriculture Committee confirmation hearing just the week before. Then there were meetings with the undersecretaries and the secretary's staff.
Schafer said he didn't know how long his schedule would last.
"I don't know," he said. "I saw at the end of my schedule, 'To Be Determined.'"
Part of the schedule on Day 1 included an interview with Agweek. Here are answers Schafer gave in that interview on his first morning on the job.
How have you and President Bush known each other across the years?
I always said I thought we met as pages at the 1964 Republican National Convention. I think right before the president was elected, I'd asked about that, and he said "I wasn't even there." So that wasn't the case. But our families knew each other.
When did you definitely meet him?
I for sure met him when he was in 1988 he was in North Dakota, campaigning for his dad. We reacquainted then, but the connection was Tom Kleppe Congressman Tom Kleppe (from North Dakota and Interior Secretary for President Gerald Ford) was in the same (congressional) class as George Herbert Walker Bush. And they were buddies.
Tom Kleppe used to work for my dad, so they were pals.
What did he (Kleppe) do for your dad?
He was the treasurer for Gold Seal Co. and ended up being at one time the president of Gold Seal Co. So two of the three cabinet secretaries from North Dakota have been presidents of Gold Seal Co. That's interesting, isn't it?
What else happened in your relationship across the years?
I'd run across him here or there, various political events. But we really got to know each other as serving as governors.
You started before he did.
I can imagine you would welcome him into groups you'd already be a member of, correct?
You know the governor's groups are very collegial. I certainly didn't have any official role in welcoming him. However, having known him previously, when you come into a group of governors and you know someone, you befriend them, if that's the right terminology.
Other than meetings with these governor's groups, did you know him otherwise?
We did. We used to spend time in Kennebunkport (Maine) with the Bush family with the whole gang. We were able to build good relationships. Gov. Bush and first lady Laura and Nancy and myself, you know, would skip out of a governor's dinner and go have dinner amongst ourselves and some others.
We had a group of governors that hung around together.
The Kennebunkport visit when would that have occurred?
It was in the spring of 1993. It was shortly after the election because President Bush '41 had been defeated. So we were up there and had some visits about that whole thing and politics.
Did he ever come to North Dakota to visit you?
There's been quite a lot of interest in what your role will be in the farm bill. How do you see your role in farm bill negotiations?
My first briefing this morning was on the farm bill. I was pleased to start getting caught up with the positions of both the administration and the agency here. I meet with the president this afternoon to visit about farm bill issues. I have spoken to him briefly about a couple of items he was interested in my opinion on. I'm just optimistic. It's a big farm bill. There are some differences of opinion on some issues in there. As I mentioned in the hearing, I think I'm in the position to kind of narrow the gap between the two sides here, to try to understand as the new eyes and ears at the table to try to see are there ways we can bring the thing together because the president very much wants to sign a new farm bill this year.
But "this year" could be by May or sometime later. I was interested in the president's emphasis on (holding the line on) taxes last night. This seems to be a sticking point in the farm bill. It doesn't sound like the direction he's wanting to go. The American Farm Bureau has endorsed the House and Senate versions, including the tax parts of it. How do you sell this notion that it has to be different? It seems like what they want is in the House and Senate versions.
Taxes (are) tied to expenditures. When you look at what the president proposed, as far as expenditures for the farm bill what you look at what expenditures are, how they vary in the House and Senate bill, how to pay for those, the taxes all those things are tied together.
As the president said last night, I'm not interested in seeing government revenues expand. We have plenty of money. We can balance the budget by 2012. We can do the things we need to do without raising taxes, and there's no reason to do so.
People in the United States don't want their taxes raised. Farmers and ranchers and landowners across this country don't either. I think the president's message is pretty strong.
Some 26 House members have already announced their retirement. You're a political figure and presumably on the stump. Is this going to be an easy message to take to people they have to do with less in the farm bill because of the concern about taxes?
I'm not sure I'd even come close to characterizing they'd have to do with less. (Administration) agriculture policy recommendations were $4 billion over the baseline. I don't think anybody's talking about doing anything with less. The question is how much more is going to be put into the farm bill.
What areas of farm policy excite you the most right now?
I think, first of all, it's an exciting time in agriculture. Prices are good. There's a lot of new technology that's gone out there in equipment and cropping. You know, it's just a fun time to be in agriculture. That's exciting.
From my administrative background, having the opportunity to implement the farm bill is something that's very interesting to me. I know from being in the governor's chair, that first shot out of the gate getting rules and regulations, getting the front-line folks tuned up with the program, how it can be delivered that's how it's going to set in for the full five years. That's exciting.
I am also thrilled to have the opportunity to see the merging of energy and agriculture especially with a background in North Dakota. Two major pieces of the economy in North Dakota energy and agriculture that's a big deal.
As you know, I've been involved in rural telecommunications in the past rural connectivity. That's fun for me, too.
What is the status of that project, putting balloons up? (Schafer was the president of Extend America, a wireless communication company, working toward making cell phone service better in rural America, using transmitters from weather balloons. The business was sold to Sprint in 2006.)
The space data project is there have been some significant tests done. The technology just doesn't quite come out of the lab yet. (The year 2007) is the third year we were all assured by the engineers that we'd have the tests flying. And they still didn't make it.
It's proving to be a little hard to miniaturize. You have a load capacity on a weather balloon. It's proven to be a little more difficult than was anticipated to miniaturize the machinery and bear the equipment and to provide the power for as long enough period off time to make the balloons work. I love the concept. I think it's going to work eventually. They're still engineering the thing.
An interplay in the ag committee came between you and Sen. Norm Coleman, R-Minn. He seems just desperate to have some constructive conversation with the administration on the farm bill. As a new person coming in presumably at the pleasure of the administration how much can you change the tone of this?
In speaking to former secretaries that were governors, the one thing that is interesting is that you love the job. It's exciting, it's fun. The one difficulty you'll have trouble adjusting to is you work for the president. That's clear.
I think these negotiations have been going on for a long time. The president introduced the farm bill in January 2007. Nothing happened for a long period of time, and then all of a sudden, there's a flurry of activity toward the end when the deadline starts coming.
People get set in their ways, they get their backs against a wall. Maybe says something that offends somebody. I think I have a wonderful opportunity now, as I characterized in the hearings, as the new kid on the block. I haven't been involved in negotiations hopefully haven't said anything dumb yet. I haven't put things on the table. I can more get a sense of where people are, where the positions are and see if we can start traveling down an avenue where we can meet the president's goals and sign the farm bill this year narrow that gap. I think I can sit between two people and see how we going to come together on this.
When will you have a ceremonial swearing-in?
Probably in the next few weeks. The president has indicated he'd like to preside over that. So obviously we're going to have to fit it into his schedule.
Is your meeting with the president today?
I have a half-hour. I saw him last night, but had not spoken with him until last night. It wasn't surprising to me, knowing the process. The thing that was surprising was how long the confirmation process was. It was three months.
The food aid initiative, which was mentioned in the State of the Union. What was the genesis of that?
I think that's an important relief program. That the administration found out dealing with disasters, and we've seen a lot of them across the globe these past years. How do you get food fast? How do you get food to them in the tsunami? People are starving, how do you move goods and get prepared? I think it became apparent that if the citizens of the United States of America are going to continue to support global relief efforts (need to be) faster and better and keener. I know first lady Laura Bush is interested in this issue as well, how you take care of people in a better way.
Does it have a world trade implication, too how trading partners like us to do food aid?I don't know that.
As far as the tax aspects of the farm bill, and what needs to change to get the farm bill done by March 15, do you have any particular ideas of how to do that?I had my first in-depth briefing on the farm bill this morning. I've been briefed on it (before), but as you know, Chuck Conner has been the point person on the farm bill for the White House. I think the president has been clear on his decision. Some of the issue here is the House and Senate have to come to agreement in the conference committee. I'll just go back to (the thought) that the president wants to sign a bill, I think he's willing to do what he thinks needs to be done on some things he feels strongly about, and one of the things he feels strongly about is no new taxes.
Do you have plans to move around the country?
Seemingly I have a full travel schedule already. I have various agricultural gatherings. One of the issues in nomination was Sen. (Max) Baucus (D-Mont.) wanted to make sure I visited Montana. I don't know that he put an official hold on, but made it clear before he agreed on the "hot line" that he knew I was going to come to the state. Because my spouse is from Montana, I think he knew the answer.
Do you have a plan to go there?I don't have a plan. And North Dakota?
I don't have anything on the schedule at this point in time, but I've mentioned here to the schedulers that I want to give some preference to some North Dakota invitations. In North Dakota, we haven't had the opportunity to have cabinet secretaries there very often especially ones from North Dakota.
Do you know where your first public speech with a group will be?
I don't. We're still trying to sort out when the deputy secretary would make it, and I would. We haven't had a sit-down to sort that out. There are some foreign travel things on the books. Again, whether Chuck would go or I would go, we haven't sorted that out yet.