Q&A with Ed Schafer, Agriculture Secretary

Agriculture Secretary Ed Schafer sat down with The Hill to discuss the farm bill a few days before President Bush vetoed the legislation. Because of a clerical error, Congress did not send him the entire bill, and it is unclear what will happen next.

Schafer, who served as North Dakota’s governor from 1992 to 2000, is frequently tagged as a possible GOP Senate candidate. He became agriculture secretary late last year after a political hiatus.

Q:Why did you take the job as Agriculture Secretary?

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I am a committed public servant. I did private sector, public sector, private sector and now [am] back in the public sector. The timing was good for me. I helped start a telecommunications company after I got out of the governor’s office and a couple years ago we sold that to Sprint, so I was bouncing around doing board work and foundations and various things and had been feeling I was getting a little stale. We said, “Let’s spend a year in Washington.” We support the president. We have been friends for a long time with the president and Mrs. Bush.

Q: Are you ever going to run for Senate in North Dakota?

No. I have no interest in that. None. I didn’t come up through the legislative branch. I am an executive branch type of guy. As governor, you deliver food stamps, put books in schools, you build roads. That’s what you do. Legislators develop the policy to do that. I am the hands-on type delivery person, not the imaginer. It just doesn’t work for me, so I have no interest in running for the Senate.

Q: What are the administration’s major problems with the farm bill?

There are two that are equal. They say it spends $10 billion over the baseline. It’s $20 billion. They can shift all funds and do all the gimmicks they want but the reality is the taxpayers write checks for $20 billion. That’s a problem.

The other equal issue here is the fairness of the reforms. We have too much money going to the top recipients and not enough to the lower recipients … Again, you have to look at the taxpayer and say we are supposed to spend your money wisely and efficiently and, by the way, we are writing subsidy checks for big corporate farming operations that have income of millions of dollars and yet we are cutting subsidies to farmers that are your average farm that’s outside your little community where you grew up. That’s a balance that just isn’t proper.

Q: Republicans in Congress said the farm bill has instituted some reforms asked for by the administration. Is that the case, and if so, what are they?

I don’t think anybody worked harder on this whole issue than [House Agriculture Committee ranking Republican] Bob Goodlatte [Va.] to get a bill to conform with the president’s desires here. He really did. He and [Agriculture Committee Chairman] Collin Peterson [D-Minn.] both were pretty amazing as a team to try to get this put together.

[Editor’s note: Schafer noted that Goodlatte and Peterson argue their farm bill would prevent farmers with adjusted gross incomes over $1.5 million from receiving farm subsidies, down from the $2.5 million limit.]

So you went from $2.5 million to $1.5 million. That’s still not a good expenditure of taxpayer dollars. I have yet to find an operation that’s going to be blocked out from getting a subsidy at $1.5 million. That’s adjusted gross income, not revenues. I think they tried. They made some steps, but they were baby steps. Now is the time, it seems to me, we should have made some significant reforms.

Q: You joined the debate on the farm bill midway. How has your relationship been with Congress?

Well, I think it has been good. I have been able to come in as the new kid on the block and say, “Explain this to me” and “How did you get to this point?” One example of that is the administration was [calling for farmers with] $200,000 adjusted gross incomes [to not be able to receive subsidies].

I was able to visit with members of Congress who represented districts with high-value crops or structurally had cotton that had a lot of off-farm businesses like a ginner. As we negotiated through some of those, all of sudden you could see the administration move to a $500,000 adjusted gross income [limit] because it made sense when you got to the table. I could do that because I didn’t have any baggage or I hadn’t made the commitment before.

Q: How do you plan to reverse those vote counts?

It’s a heavy lift here. My opinion is we don’t have much of a chance at all in the Senate. In the House, we have to peel off 40 people who voted for the bill but would vote to sustain the president’s veto. That’s really tough. But I think there’s an opportunity there to expose some of this non-farm, non-agricultural policy, gimmickry expenditures in there that we can find enough people who care about the taxpayers’ expenditures that will give an ear to that.