By Sam Holbrooks
Following a keynote address in which U.S. House Agriculture Chairman, Mike Conaway (R-Midland) addressed aspects of the planned 2018 Farm Bill at the Seminole Community Center on Thursday, the seven-term legislator joined fellow Republican Congressmen in a roundtable discussion on a variety of topics. Included in the panel were Freshman 19th District Representative Jodey Arrington (R-Lubbock) and Hobbs resident — Rep. Steve Pearce — representing New Mexico’s District 2. Joining them on stage was retired Congressman and former Agricultural Committee chair, Larry Combest.
While the forum dispensed with an actual Q&A session, each man spoke generally to a series of questions that had been handed in by several in attendance at the Western Peanut Growers “Ag Issues Conference”. With mostly values-oriented messages, and others addressing concerns over national debt, budget deficits, and entitlements, the forum addressed agricultural issues only in general terms.
Opening the dialogue with a gathering of primarily peanut growers from the throughout the region, Arrington told attendees, “I love the story of agriculture and rural America, and the fact that we are the food, fuel, and fiber at the center of this country. I know what that means to our nation’s economy and national security. More than anything, I love the traditional American values in the Ag profession out here in West Texas.”
Arrington went on to recognize Conaway for getting him a “seat at the table” on the Agriculture Committee as a Freshman Representative. “It was a number one priority to sit on the Ag committee, to get cotton back in the farm bill, and to get a strong, reliable safety net”, he said.
With a nod to President Donald Trump, Arrington added, “I may not agree with him all the time, and I certainly have a different style of leadership, but I think he is the man for this time. He’s bold, he’s courageous, and he believes in America first. That’s what we’ve been talking about, making sure that we have policies in place — trade deals, safety nets, and regulatory constructs — so that American producers can compete head-to-head. When we do, we win.”
Pearce introduced himself with a series of light-hearted anecdotes, recounting his humble roots in Eastern New Mexico as the son of a sharecropper and oilfield worker, and his principled upbringing in a working class family. He joked that if the family pickup truck hadn’t broken down so close to the New Mexico state line en route from his native O’Donnell when he was a child, he may have run for office in Arrington’s Texas District 19.
“Mom and Dad never went to a political meeting,” Pearce said. “They just went out every day and tried to raise their family right — send us to school, send us to church. They struggled to make ends meet. So every day I feel like I’m representing people like Mom and Dad, that are out here trying to make the country work right, if we can just keep the government off our backs.”
“I think about two-thirds of what I do is fight the federal government because they’ve become intrusive, they’re arrogant, and they’ve insisted that their way is going to work, and yours is not. I’m in D.C. to just try and make sure that you can do your job.”
Addressing the question of a leaner “skinny” budget submitted by President Trump that includes a $21 billion (24%) cut in the USDA, Rep. Pierce said “first of all, the President’s budget is just an idea put on a piece of paper. It’s got to have 218 votes in the House and enough votes to pass in the Senate. So while we can agree that we need to cut budgets, and the flab in the government is something we have to look at, it will be modified a lot and will represent America much more than it does right now.”
Pearce went on to explain that, in the process of cutting federal budgets, more attention needs to be given to bloated, inefficient bureaucracies. “We do nothing to turn these agencies back and start shrinking the flab,” he said. “It’s essential that we keep the important pieces of the budget, but do away with those things where people are being paid for doing nothing.”
Conaway continued with the theme of cutting administrative budgets, as opposed to program budgets. He explained that leaner times can and should serve to force agencies to become “leaner and better focused.”
“Now when we start talking about cutting government, that means people will lose their jobs, and that is hard, but if we do that at the same time that we try to grow the economy, it will provide them opportunities somewhere else. There are hard things coming, but to his credit, President Trump has us all talking about that issue.”
Relating his experiences in a visit to the African continent, Conaway went on to articulate the moral dilemma that the country faces when it comes to feeding a hungry world, and cutting budgets at home that will have a lasting effect on those most in need. “We’re conflicted because we’re $20 trillion in debt, and how much longer can we ask our grandkids to do those good things? It’s the greatest threat to my kids, and your kids and grandkids. President Trump has helped us to start that conversation.”
Arrington explained his own concerns over current spending levels that will create a $30 trillion deficit in 10 years, but said that budget cuts “must be strategic.” “We have to do something about entitlement reform, or we’re going to keep cutting to the bone in things like farm programs, where there’s just not a lot more to cut,” he added. “Then we won’t even have the capacity to feed our own people. We have to have the courage and the will to tackle these programs. If we don’t, we’re doing a disservice to our kids.”
Answering a final query about how citizens of this region become more active participants in the process of change, Pearce, by implication, suggested continued support for Trump administration policies. He began by praising Trump on his negotiating skills that have, early in his administration, forced NATO partners to increase their contributions to the organization, and forced the TransCanada Company to suspend a $15 billion lawsuit over the Keystone XL pipeline by threatening to “pull their permits”.
Arrington emphasized “getting our country back” through fewer regulations on job creators, tax reform, health care reform, and dealing with unfair trade practices by foreign competitors. “We have a window of opportunity,” he explained. “As a party, we have to learn how to govern, how to move the ball down the field and score. As Speaker Ryan has said, we’re moving from an opposition party to one that is leading.”
Rep. Conaway closed his comments by telling the gathering “we have a hard path to walk. It’s going to require some compromise. There are people who will lose their jobs, there are people who will not have the benefits they thought they would have, there are promises that we have to re-negotiate. We have to re-negotiate Medicare, not reform it. Reform is just a warm and fuzzy word for everybody wins, sings ‘Kumbaya,’ and wanders off. This is re-negotiation.”
“We have forces afoot in D.C. that make Jody and my jobs harder to do,” Conaway continued. Ratcheting up earlier critical comments made by Arrington, Conaway directed much of his criticism to the Heritage Foundation and its President, Jim DeMint. The non-profit conservative think tank’s “Legislative Scorecard” has evoked the ire of a number of GOP lawmakers, and Conaway has been among its most outspoken critics.
Conaway also encouraged the crowd to be more discriminating on how it receives its information, in order to stem what he called “an avalanche of disinformation, and a tsunami of information”, both in social media and mainstream media. “You need to decide who you trust,” he said.
Former Rep. Combest made closing comments that recalled his relationships with politically active area farmers such as Doyle Fincher, J.O. Jackson, and Ted Higginbottom. “They had a very active program of educating people who are making policy decisions about peanuts, who had no earthly idea about peanuts, other than the fact that they can buy them in a can, or a jar, or in a candy bar,” he said. “With their help, Gaines County became the biggest peanut producing county in the United States. That didn’t happen by accident. “
Combest recalled sitting with Fincher at a fund raising event for then Indiana Congressional candidate Mike Pence on the morning of September 11, 2001.