Harkin on Sidelines For Farm Bill Finale

Posted April 7, 2008 at 6:34pm

Senate Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry Chairman Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) has been largely boxed out of negotiations on this year’s farm bill, while two other Democratic chairmen and the Agriculture panel’s ranking member craft policy deals without him in the rush to finish the measure before an April 18 deadline.

In an interview last week, Harkin acknowledged that he has not been involved in some recent talks, explaining that he felt it necessary to step back from the fray and allow others to take over.

“If they want to try to do something else, if they can help figure out some ways to getting this logjam broken, hey, sometimes the best leadership is to stand aside and let some people figure it out instead of always trying to manipulate everything,” Harkin said.

In fact, a March 25 framework for the bill was devised by Senate Finance Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.), Senate Budget Chairman Kent Conrad (D-N.D.), Finance ranking member Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), and Agriculture ranking member Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.), along with leaders of the House Agriculture Committee.

Baucus and Grassley have to be intimately involved in the negotiations because the Finance panel is charged with finding offsets for nearly $10 billion of the measure’s programs. However, both men also have been working with Conrad and Chambliss to craft the underlying policy that is the purview of the Agriculture Committee.

“It has to do with jurisdiction, but it also has to do with who runs the Ag Committee,” Harkin said. “Do the Ag Committee members run the Ag Committee or does the Finance Committee?”

Conrad, along with four other Democrats and three Republicans, serve on both Agriculture and Finance committees.

“It’s partly a function of he who has the gold rules,” echoed one GOP Senator of the Finance panel’s might. “The whole process has been characterized by infighting over jurisdiction … over who gets to come up with the policy.”

Even as Baucus and Grassley demand influence by virtue of their Finance roles, Conrad — who is second in seniority to Harkin on Agriculture — essentially has been acting as de facto chairman of the Agriculture panel, Senators and aides said.

“Conrad knows the issues better than the chairman of the Agriculture Committee,” said one senior Senate Democratic aide. “He’s also on Finance. So, he can deal with Baucus.”

Another Senate Democratic source said Conrad — who also took over the reins of the 2002 farm bill from Harkin at the behest of then-Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) — appears more willing to compromise, whereas Harkin’s style has been described as stubborn and uncompromising.

Conrad “is not trying to push his own agenda at the expense of other committee members,” the source said. The source added that Conrad has taken over in part because of his ability and willingness to craft bipartisan deals. “He’s very competent, all business and doesn’t have much patience for inaction,” the source said.

Harkin, on the other hand, has been almost singularly focused on his pet conservation and nutrition programs and he has not concentrated on crafting deals on other aspects of the bill, several Democratic sources said.

Conrad sidestepped questions about whether Harkin has been excluded from some key talks on the newest version of the bill.

“He’s been in the room,” Conrad said of Harkin’s involvement. “There have been lots of different rooms, lots of different negotiations, but he’s been front and center. … There are things that involve really Finance Committee jurisdiction.”

Grassley agreed that “Sen. Harkin will be in the room anytime he wants to be in the room,” but he said Harkin “doesn’t have much control” over what offsets the Finance Committee looks for to pay for the bill.

Plus, Grassley said Baucus would insist on his policy prerogatives in terms of the Agriculture panel’s jurisdiction “or there isn’t going to be any money coming from the Finance Committee.”

Baucus also avoided questions about Harkin’s apparent absence from the negotiating table, saying, “We’re past that now.” He said he is focused on the current problem of trying to find offsets for the bill before April 18, when the current one-month extension of the farm bill expires.

Even Chambliss has taken to negotiating with Conrad instead of Harkin. According to an internal memo from one Senate office, Chambliss, Conrad and Baucus devised the March 25 farm bill framework, with input from the House and Grassley. Harkin was told of the negotiations but was not included in the back-and-forth decision-making, according to several sources.

Chambliss could not be reached for comment, but a minority committee staff aide confirmed that Harkin was not in on those negotiations.

The March 25 agreement followed a March 18 deal reached between Harkin and leaders of the House Agriculture Committee that Baucus declared “dead on arrival.” Other Senators and farm lobbyists also criticized it as deficient in terms of money for commodities, disasters and crop insurance programs.

“That framework was laughed at,” the senior Senate Democratic aide said.

In particular, Baucus, along with many others, complained that the deal shortchanged his top priority, a disaster assistance fund. And many questioned the political wisdom of Harkin’s agreement to cut in half funding for a program so near and dear to the heart of the man who is charged with finding money to pay for the entire farm bill.

“I won’t vote for or help to fund any agreement that does not do disaster assistance right for our farmers in need,” Baucus said in a March 18 statement.

Harkin said Baucus did not talk to him before issuing the “dead on arrival” press release. But a Harkin spokeswoman cautioned that the March 18 framework was never meant to be the last word and was simply something intended to jump-start negotiations.

Another knowledgeable Senate Democratic source said one of Harkin’s weaknesses has been below his pay grade.

“Tom is not served well by his staff,” the source said. “His staff have been difficult to work with and really out of sync with the majority of the committee.”

But one Democratic Senator said Harkin appears to be stepping back on purpose.

“You can’t undercut the chairman, because the chairman at the end of the day is still the chairman, but you can explore other options, and that’s what I think is happening here,” the Senator said.

Indeed, Harkin said he’s satisfied with his role in the mammoth bill.

“It doesn’t bother me a bit,” he said, “because I know where I am, and I know what we’ve done on the farm bill. It’s a free country.”