By Paul Lewis
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, September 26, 2007
The Department of Agriculture is rarely in the headlines these days, but when Secretary Mike Johanns stepped down last week, he listed a range of projects that span the agency's broad reach, from preparing for an outbreak of a highly pathogenic strain of avian influenza to developing an online facility for providing U.S. citizens with nutrition advice.
In the past three years, the department has more than doubled the number of acres in conservation initiatives, to 184 million acres. And it has worked to open foreign markets for U.S. agricultural exports, especially beef, which suffered after the discovery of mad cow disease in 2003 in Washington state.
"I walked in the midst of those USDA employees, and they just applauded and applauded and applauded," Johanns said in an interview shortly after stepping down in the expectation of running for the Senate seat in his home state of Nebraska that will be left vacant by the retirement of Chuck Hagel (R).
But the farm legislation currently crawling through Congress is more likely to be remembered as the hallmark of Johanns's tenure at the Agriculture Department. And on that, he has his fans, but there may not be as much clapping.
Johanns leaves behind a department uncertain over the future spending of $286 billion of federal money and allegations that he abandoned the legislation at a crucial juncture. Johanns has been a faithful advocate of the Bush administration call for limits on farm subsidies to wealthy farmers and a move toward less trade-distorting methods of making payments.
But lawmakers from traditional farming states, who have historically controlled negotiations, have been resistant to change.
The son of a dairy farmer, Johanns's flagship initiative on farm policy was to travel the country listening to farmers and ranchers. His department held 52 forums in 48 states to gauge opinion on legislation, and Johanns personally attended about 20 of those meetings. By the end of the consultation process, USDA had elicited 4,000 comments. Speaking to his main constituents "on the tongue of the wagon," as Johanns put it, was a popular move out on the wheat farms and cattle ranches, according to industry representatives, and important preparatory work for advancing new legislation.
"The problem with changing farm policy is that you're up against very long-established and entrenched set of interests who don't want the policy to change," said Ralph Grossi, president of the American Farmland Trust. "The normal criticism of politicians is that they don't listen -- he went out and saw farmers. That added a lot of credibility to the positions [the administration] has taken on the farm bill."
Mark Maslyn, chief lobbyist of the American Farm Bureau Federation, said Johanns has been more accessible to farmers and ranchers than "any secretary in recent memory" and succeeded in impressing the administration's position upon lawmakers.
But many believe Johanns was less influential in Washington than he was out in the fields. His strong backing from the White House -- support that his predecessor, Ann M. Veneman, never received when the previous farm bill passed in 2002 -- has not translated into any real triumphs for the administration, which has threatened to veto the House version of the farm bill that passed in July.
It is not known whether the Senate markup of the bill, to be unveiled soon by Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), chairman of the Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry Committee, will be more accommodating to the administration's calls for reform. Some lawmakers doubted Johanns's personal influence over the legislative process, suggesting it was his then-deputy, Chuck Conner, now acting secretary, who did much of the backroom work.
Other Democratic lawmakers and activists gearing up to oppose Johanns in the potential Senate race have accused Johanns of cutting and running. "It is completely irresponsible for the Secretary of Agriculture to leave his post right in the middle of negotiations in Congress over the next Farm Bill," said Sen. Kent Conrad (D-N.D), a senior member of the Agriculture Committee and one of several lawmakers to release statements condemning the resignation.
Johanns, now back in Nebraska where he once served as governor and is expected to announce his election bid soon, said he takes such criticisms as a "as a compliment. I go from three years ago when I was hardly known," he said. "And here I am today where they're saying, here's an important person."
The boost in his personal profile aside, the outcome of Johanns's tenure is likely to be determined over the coming weeks.
Carol Tucker Foreman, a fellow in food policy at the Consumer Federation of America, said escaping tense congressional negotiations, which are unlikely to yield substantial success for the USDA or the administration, was no mistake. "If I was planning to move to Nebraska, I would think this was a good time to do it."