Cattle rancher and rural Oklahoma resident, U.S. House Agriculture Committee Chairman Frank Lucas" priorities are close to home.
"Gentlemen, say that there are, in this country, three interests, the agricultural, commercial, and manufacturing. And how happens it, sir, that the agricultural, the great leading and substantial interest in this country, has no committee; no organized tribunal in this House to hear and determine on their grievances? If the commercial or manufacturing interests are affected, the cry resounds throughout the country; remonstrances flow in upon us; they are referred to committees appointed for the purpose of guarding them, and adequate remedies are provided. But, sir, when agriculture is oppressed, and makes complaint, what tribunal is in this House to hear and determine on the grievances?"
And thus, Lewis Williams, a U.S. Representative from Surrey County, N.C., in 1820, sponsored a resolution to create the House Committee on Agriculture. Since then, the committee has been led by 48 Republicans and Democrats, and it has grown in size and scope of jurisdiction. And while the number of lawmakers with direct ties to agriculture has dwindled over the years, the committee's focus has remained the same – maintaining a healthy agricultural industry.
Fortunately for today's farmers and ranchers, the committee's chairman is one of their own – Frank Lucas, a farmer and rancher from Western Oklahoma.
Lucas" family, corn and cotton farmers, moved to what was the Oklahoma Territory in 1900 and 1905. They have been in the same part of Western Oklahoma since then, through the Great Depression, severe droughts and multiple economic downturns.
After earning a degree in agricultural economics from Oklahoma State University and serving the Oklahoma State House of Representatives, Lucas was first elected to the United States House of Representatives in 1994. In addition to recently being re-elected to his 11th term and noting that he has crossed the 4 million mile-mark flying between Washington, D.C., and Oklahoma for the last 20 years, Lucas says he has worked very hard to be a working farmer and rancher with his wife and a part of his community.
"Lynda Lucas is the herdsman as I like to refer to her. She runs the operation during the week," he says. "That's given me a perspective – not only being on the farm every weekend with Lynda but being home with my neighbors, my fellow farmers, ranchers and citizens. You'd be surprised at the advice you get on a Sunday morning, after the basketball game on Friday night or at a family gathering on Saturday."
Agricultural Act of 2014
While his term as the helm of the Agriculture Committee is nearing its end, Lucas" impact on American agriculture is most evident in what he calls his single biggest accomplishment as chairman – passage of the Agricultural Act of 2014, which he says is different than previous Farm Bills.
Doing away with the old direct payment program in the commodity title and strengthening the safety net for livestock producers, Lucas says the "fundamental guise in this farm bill is insurance." In fact, the 2014 Farm Bill includes livestock disaster assistance for losses dating back to 2012 (when previous livestock disaster assistance expired), including, most notably, the Livestock Indemnity Program for death loss due to agricultural disasters and the Livestock Forage Disaster Program for drought and fire losses to grazing capacity.
"My family has lived in a part of the world where the soil is measured in inches, not feet, and where until I was 17, I didn't know you could have a prayer that didn't ask for rain," he says. "I've lived in a volatile economic market, getting through gyrations that Mother Nature put us through. Trying to provide a safety net to my fellow farmers and ranchers across the country is something I believe in.
"No farmer wants an insurance check. We want a good livestock or grain crop. We want a good price. We want good markets. But when things are beyond our control, or has been the case occasionally in my lifetime, have been manipulated by outside forces, outside governments or even sometimes government actions here at home – then these safety nets are necessary," he says.
Drafting the Farm Bill was the first fence to cross; next came educating the other 434 members in the House of Representatives about the need for a strong farm safety net, working with the Senate Agriculture Committee and carefully maneuvering the legislation through what ended up a nearly three year process.
"After the first year and a half no one ever thought a Farm Bill would pass," he says. "But we proved all the naysayers and doubters wrong, and we did it through regular order. We did our work in open committee and on the floor. We went to conference with the Senate. They did their work in open committee. We passed a bill the way my eighth grade civics book said you should do legislation. And I think that was good for the body."
A good bill but not perfect
While Chairman Lucas" pride in the 2014 Farm Bill is evident, he admits there are some things that did not get done in the legislation, including addressing the U.S. mandatory country-of-origin-labeling law (COOL). As of late October, the World Trade Organization (WTO) has twice ruled the U.S. COOL law to be out of compliance with international trade obligations. He says the House-passed version of the five-year bill included language to address COOL but notes that the Senate "declined to work with it."
The two WTO rulings against the U.S. law put COOL in a different category than the rest of the 2014 Farm Bill.
"If we don't take definitive action, sanctions under the WTO will be imposed against certain U.S. agricultural products or other U.S. items. What the Canadians and Mexicans will as for – I can't honestly say but I would tell you it will be the most sensitive pressure points imaginable. That's just good negotiating. So while I would generally say the farm bill should be left alone, in this case, if you don't take action, there will be areas of the farm economy and the general U.S. economy that will pay a horrible price."
Passing the gavel
Just as a rancher's job does not end when the calves are sold, Chairman Lucas" job serving farmers and ranchers and his Western Oklahoma constituents will continue after his tenure as chairman. He will continue to serve on the agriculture committee, noting current efforts related to breaking down non-tariff trade barriers and stopping the Environmental Protection Agency from implementing burdensome regulations, including the Waters of the United States proposed rule that would expanding the agency's jurisdiction under the Clean Water Act.
Chairman Lucas also serves on the House Financial Services Committee, which oversees banking and insurance. He says with its influence over the cost and availability of credit, the Financial Services Committee is a "logical place" to spend time. He will also continue working to educate his House colleagues about production agriculture.
"The lion's share of the people I serve with are really decent people trying to reflect the focus and the needs of their constituents," he says. "It's just a lot of times there are occasions when members have no background, nor do their constituents, on issues as complex as production agriculture and rural America."
He was re-elected in the November midterms, earning nearly 79 percent of the votes in the district, and says as long as that continues, he has no plans to change.
"As long as Lynda Lucas and the citizens of the third district of Oklahoma will allow me to work on their behalf – I enjoy the work. I think we've made progress and I want to defend that progress," he says. "The House Agriculture Committee, and I believe to a degree myself, have established a degree of credibility with leadership on both sides of the room and the membership because they came to realize that we were trying to do things the right way, for the right reason to get the right results for everyone's constituents."
***U.S. Representative Mike Conaway (R-Texas) was elected to succeed Rep. Lucas as chairman of the House Agriculture Committee in the next Congress.