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Stabenow gets 'er done

DANIEL LOOKER 08/13/2012 @ 3:43pm Business Editor

If Congress had more leaders like Senator Debbie Stabenow (D-MI), Washington might not be gridlocked. As chairwoman of the Senate Agriculture Committee, Stabenow treated the ranking Republican, Pat Roberts of Kansas, like a cochair. Together, they got the Senate’s farm bill passed with just two and a half days of debate on amendments in June.

I’ve long admired other committee chairs as visionaries. Senator Richard Lugar (R-IN) was a fiscal conservative before it was trendy. Senator Tom Harkin (D-IA) fought to expand conservation in the previous two farm bills. In his own way, each was a conscience against agriculture’s excesses. But I don’t think I have seen anyone more effective than Stabenow.

Pundits and the press killed the bill often following a procedural vote to move ahead on June 7. After that show of support (90 in favor, eight against), the bill languished as senators filed nearly 300 amendments. For almost two weeks, Stabenow and Roberts worked behind the scenes to get the number pared down to 73, manageable enough to finish before the July 4 recess.

During that battle, Stabenow “just got up there and kept smiling about how she’s optimistic,” a veteran farm lobbyist remembers. Meanwhile, she endured “what must have been torture behind the scenes.”

With six former Ag Committee chairs on her committee, Stabenow was a master at calming big egos.

“I don’t think I’ve ever dealt with a chair who has attempted to give away so much credit,” says one farm group lobbyist.

In April, the committee set a speed record for marking up its own bill – 4½ hours. Yet Stabenow had time to praise each member’s contribution. She’s been “very accommodating,” says one member, Chuck Grassley (R-IA).

With ally Tim Johnson (D-SD), Grassley tried for years to limit commodity payments to big farms by introducing amendments. This year, Stabenow got that into the committee bill, “and she bragged about it,” says a pleased Grassley.

Make no mistake, Stabenow was a tough leader as well, protecting two areas of key interest in her home state: promoting fruit and vegetable crops and avoiding steep cuts to food stamps. Adds former chairman Harkin, “She was very strong on ending direct payment programs.” That’s another reform Stabenow brags about.

Stabenow and Roberts didn’t cave to demands from rice and peanut farmers to restore target prices. They saw the Senate’s new shallow loss program, Agricultural Risk Coverage, as weak.

Senators Kent Conrad (D-ND) and Saxby Chambliss (R-GA) had an amendment to restore target prices. It didn’t make the cut for the final 73 amendments considered. Nor did another to cap crop insurance premium subsidies at $40,000.

A separate premium limit did get a vote, passing with a nearly two-thirds majority. It trims subsidies 15 percentage points for farms with adjusted gross income above $750,000. The Senate also narrowly voted for tying crop insurance eligibility to conservation compliance.

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