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Lucas threads a thin needle

DANIEL LOOKER 08/13/2012 @ 3:40pm Business Editor

If anyone is qualified to be chairman of the House Agriculture Committee, it’s Frank Lucas. His rural western Oklahoma district comprises almost half the state and is one of the nation’s largest. He’s an Oklahoma State grad with a degree in agricultural economics. His family has farmed for over a century. As he said when his committee started to debate a farm bill in July, “I am and will always be a farmer and rancher. And, yes, while my wife runs the cow-calf operation in Oklahoma these days, my mind never leaves the farm.” He checks the weather daily, often more than once. Lucas, a Republican, is one of those rare members of Congress who understands agriculture from the ground up.

He seems to have the right personality for the times, neither as reserved as the last Republican to lead the committee, Bob Goodlatte of Virginia, nor as bluntly outspoken as the Democrat who came before him, Collin Peterson of Minnesota.

“It’s hard not to like Frank Lucas. He’s just a nice guy,” says one farm group lobbyist. And he’s smart.

The 2010 election brought inexperienced Republicans to the committee, some with scant knowledge of agriculture. Many of the moderate Democrats on the committee weren’t reelected and were replaced by more liberal ones. It could have been a recipe for disaster.

Instead, Lucas bided his time. His committee held oversight hearings, while the Senate went ahead with writing a farm bill. Meanwhile, behind the scenes, his staff worked with the Senate and USDA to draft its own version. On July 11, in a grueling session that lasted more than 12 hours, his committee voted out a farm bill, 35 to 11. Members of both parties on the committee opposed it, but it was a bipartisan victory.

“We beat the expectations of a good many people in this building and in this town today,” Lucas said later.

No issue threatened the bill more than food stamps. It slows nutrition spending by more than $16 billion over 10 years. Democrats offered amendments to the bill to restore all of it and to trim only $4 billion, the same as the Senate bill.

Committee member Tim Huelskamp wanted to double the cuts. Lucas spoke against both changes. “I believe it’s in the best interest of the process that we maintain the balance that we have,” he said. Food stamp cuts were unpopular with Democrats, but with Peterson’s help, Lucas got bipartisan votes for the bill.

Waiting until the Senate passed a bill gave Lucas more momentum. Still, “in a way, what he had to do is a tougher job,” says another farm lobbyist. “He was trying to write a bill that appeals to the center political spectrum, and there’s no center left in the House.”

In cutting costs, Lucas also led by example. He supported ending the $5 billion-a-year direct payment program, one that he and wheat growers in his state have long supported. And coming from the district that was once the epicenter of the Dust Bowl, Lucas supports many conservation programs, which also took cuts of more than $6 billion over 10 years. He supported adding a new target price program, something not all Republicans on his committee like that much. But its higher prices for rice and peanuts will bring key Southern votes.

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