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GOP Caucus votes Roberts in as ranking member of Senate Ag Committee

By JERRY HAGSTROM

The Senate Republican Caucus voted Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kansas, to be the ranking Republican member of the Senate Agriculture Committee today, making him the first member of Congress to have served as both chairman and ranking member of the House Agriculture Committee and ranking member of the Senate Agriculture Committee.

“I am honored to continue working on behalf of America’s farmers and ranchers in this new position,” Roberts said in a news release. “I look forward to working with Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow. We have a history of working together on the Agriculture and Finance committees, and I know we will make a great team for American agriculture.”

Roberts said his priorities for the 112th Congress “will focus on maintaining the production agriculture safety net, expanding trade opportunities for farmers and ranchers, conducting oversight of regulations that threaten the competitiveness of America’s farmers, and maintaining the security and science-based sustainability of food and agriculture sectors.”

Roberts chaired the House Agriculture Committee from 1995 to 1997, when it passed the Freedom to Farm legislation that got rid of farm bill provisions restricting farmers’ planting decisions, but also reduced price-triggered crop subsidies and established the direct payments farmers get whether prices are high or low. The 1996 farm bill was highly controversial, and Congress had to pass additional funding for farmers before changing elements of the plan in 2002. Roberts is also known for working with former Sen. Bob Kerrey, D-Neb., on a 2000 bill that improved the crop insurance program.

The direct payments program is expected to be the subject of debate and negotiation in the 2012 farm bill. It is popular with southern farmers, but controversial among some northern farmers who would prefer to use the money for a better crop insurance program. Critics and some farmers say the direct payments are harder to justify in a time of high prices, but trade advocates note that the payments do not distort farmers’ planting decisions because they do not reward farmers for any choice of crop.

Roberts is the latest in a long line of Kansas Republicans to hold leadership posts on the Senate Agriculture committee. Roberts noted that the last Kansan to hold the ranking member post was Sen. Robert J. Dole, who served in that capacity from 1975-78. Sen. Arthur Capper served as ranking member from 1943 to 1947, before chairing the committee until 1949. The first Kansan to serve as chairman was Republican Sen. James Lane, in 1863.