For as long as I can remember in my journalism career, Sen. Pat Roberts has been a key player in just about every consequential piece of agricultural legislation in the U.S.

As a Marine, a former journalist and member of Congress, he’s helped his country in a multitude of ways. His home state of Kansas, where he served for 16 years in the U.S. House and 24 in the U.S. Senate, is a key beneficiary. But if you have lived anywhere in the U.S., as a farmer, rancher, grower, businessman or consumer, you’ve likely been touched in some way by his actions and influence.

He is the only person to have served as chairman and ranking member of both the House and Senate Agriculture Committees. He’s worked on eight farm bills, most recently leading the passage of the 2018 farm bill which won a record 87 votes in the U.S. Senate. In addition, his legacy includes the Agriculture Risk Protection Act of 2000, which resulted in a major expansion of crop insurance, and the 2016 biotech labeling act, which preempted state GMO labeling laws.

Since Roberts is retiring next year, our team asked him what bill he was involved with that would still have the biggest impact 10 years from now. He quickly brought up the 1996 farm bill.

“We still have the freedom to farm. It’s surprising that it’s lasted this long,” he said.

Newsletter signup for email alerts

The bill (called “Freedom to Fail” by its detractors) formally ended the system of production controls and commodity subsidies that were first imposed during the Depression and put U.S. agriculture on a path toward market orientation.

He went on to lament that there had been “some talks about set-aside” during negotiations on coronavirus relief assistance. That was a clear reference to a provision in a House-passed bill to expand the Soil Health and Income Protection Program, which was created as a small regional pilot in the 2018 farm bill.

“That’s so terribly counterproductive. It just doesn’t make any sense. … Why would you go and set aside part of your operation, thereby giving that acreage and that crop to a foreign country and one of our competitors. Because they always grow more when there is a set-aside,” Roberts said. Visit https://www.agri-pulse.com/media/videos/play/714-washington-week-in-review-nov-20-2020-sen-pat-roberts to watch the interview.

And if you want a broader picture of his illustrious career, some farm policy history and perspective on the inner workings of our political system, you should listen to the full farewell speech that he recently delivered on the Senate floor. It’s full of colorful stories, snapbacks to important milestones in U.S. history and most importantly, a charge to his fellow Senators that they can and should do better.

“To be a member of this United States Senate is a true privilege. A working family, it is the greatest deliberative body in the world,” Roberts explained. “But, today, as compared to when I first came to the Senate, it’s the deliberative part that gives me great concern. I lament the loss of comity, the ability to work together, or just to get along. Sadly, gridlock appears to be the new normal. However, it does not have to be. “

Pat Roberts, R-Kan., and Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich.
Pat Roberts, R-Kan., and Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich.
Roberts challenged his fellow senators to get to know one another and pointed to his time chairing the Senate Agriculture Committee, with Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., as ranking member. He also served as the ranking member when she was chair during work on the 2014 farm bill.

He said it was a great example of how Republicans and Democrats can get things done for the greater public good.

“We knew, regardless of what each of us wanted, passing a farm bill was paramount. We had an agreement: no surprises, no press the other one did not know about, and we held hearings together all over the country to listen to all of agriculture,” Roberts recalled.

“I went to the campus of Michigan State and wore green and white, she came to Kansas State and wore purple. We not only agreed to work together, we gave staff marching orders to do the same. We also became friends, I protected her, and she protected me in conference, and we got 87 votes, setting a record for a farm bill,” he noted.

While pointing out that he and Stabenow usually don’t vote alike on the Senate floor, “we remain friends.”

“Friendship and comity is the norm for the Ag Committee; it could be for the whole Senate.”

He described a long list of challenges that Americans have faced over the course of history — assassinations, protests, wildfires, and tornados — just to name a few.

“We endured these hardships and came out on the other side. We did it by changing the old normal and creating a new normal,” he explained while encouraging his colleagues to find ways to once again work together.

“We don’t have to let the apparent gravitational pull of more and more politics in pursuit of power to change what our founders gave us — the creation of a nation of liberty and freedom, the envy of the world — and to literally move the United States Senate from the moorings of its historic and great past to simply be a rubber stamp for radical change.”

Wyant is president and founder of Agri-Pulse Communications Inc. For more news, go to www.Agri-Pulse.com.