Comment: Letting go now that you’re gone

An expanded U.S. House Agriculture Committee means a wider-ranging discussion

After Collin Peterson, the former chairman of the U.S. House Ag Committee, lost his November 2020 re-election bid to Republican challenger Michelle Fischbach, the 15-term congressman packed 194 boxes with office material and Capitol Hill memories and returned to his native Minnesota.

The memorabilia included stacks of paper, piles of walnut plaques, one well-used office desk, and an impressively large elk head mount.

Peterson also brought home a couple of chips on his shoulder.

In a recent long and reflective interview with Duluth News Tribune, the 76-year-old veteran of Farm Bill battles related that he had counselled his Democratic successor, David Scott of suburban Atlanta, not to expand the Ag Committee from its long-standing 47 members to a bigger, more unruly 53 members.

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After Peterson’s departure, however, Scott did just that — mostly to accommodate Fischbach, Peterson believes.

Whatever the reason, Scott opened a can of worms Peterson says he spent 10 years keeping a tight lid on. It’s political math, explained the one-time accountant to News Tribune readers.

During his 40 years in politics and 30 years in Congress, Peterson watched as rural Democratic district after district — some that had sent powerhouses like Tom Daschle, Dan Glickman, Tom Harkin, and Tom Foley to the Ag Committee — go Republican. So much so that today, relates Peterson, almost every rural district across the U.S. is Republican.

That means Peterson had an increasingly tough time finding enough rural Dems to fill his party’s share of the 47-member Ag Committee. Now, however, with 53 total members, there are, in fact, too many Dem seats for chairman Scott to fill and at least two majority ag seats remain empty.

Scott’s committee expansion, explains Peterson, creates two other problems. First, it gives bona fide rural Republicans more credibility to challenge the now more-urban, majority Democrats on farm programs. “This is bad,” he told the News Tribune. “I was able to hold things together, keep things bipartisan. But I’m worried about what’s going to happen.”

Bipartisan, Peterson’s progressive critics might say, in that he was able to deflect every attempt by fellow Dems to limit farm program payments to, ironically, the utter delight of his Republican committee foes.

But it was less about committee politics and more about political philosophy, he now says. “You’re picking winners and losers for no good policy reason, other than size.”

Exactly, Peterson’s critics often replied; government shouldn’t shower big benefits on Big Ag that it then uses to become even bigger.

New chairman Scott made one other move that irritates his predecessor: He added “one of the most liberal members of Congress” to the committee, Rep. Ro Khanna, who, Peterson explains, “has been agitating me for the last two terms to get on the committee because he has an agenda to change agriculture and get rid of what we have.”

Well, maybe not “get rid of” but at least reform parts of “what we have.” Last May, Khanna offered legislation that echoed Sen. Cory Booker’s efforts to reshape the Packers & Stockyards Act to pare meat-packer influence in U.S. livestock and poultry markets.

Peterson, however, sees the California congressman very differently. Khanna, he explains, shouldn’t even be in ag policy because he represents the high-tech Silicon Valley and “not one inch of his district has anything but concrete on it.”

Maybe so, but Khanna, a Phi Beta Kappa scholar in economics from the University of Chicago and a Yale Law School graduate, is what U.S. agriculture and Congress might need to meet the challenges of today’s new farm and food environment — climate change, market resiliency, alternative energy, pending water shortages, and increasingly powerful food buyers here and abroad.

If anything, the clear difference between old bulls like Peterson and rising roosters like Khanna is the difference to where a farm-centred ag policy often went and where a food-centred ag policy needs to go.

House ag chairman Scott has signalled his willingness to sort through those differences. Meanwhile, in Minnesota, Peterson will sort through his memories.

The Farm & Food File is published weekly in newspapers throughout the U.S. and Canada.

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