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Washington / Michigan

Debbie Stabenow: Michigan Agriculture’s Ace in the Hole

by Sarah Kellogg
January 16, 2012

Make no mistake about it, U.S. Sen. Debbie Stabenow’s position as chair of the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry is a boon for Michigan’s farmers — one of several bits of good news the state’s economy has had in the last year.

Stabenow has been a friend to Michigan agriculture since her days in the state House in the 1980s, and her chairmanship allows her to keep a sharp eye on Michigan’s ag concerns as she leads negotiations on a new national farm bill with the Obama administration and House Republicans. The multi-year farm bill sets federal policy and funding for agriculture and food security programs.

Protecting agriculture from the sharp edge of the ax in Washington will be no easy feat in 2012. There have been and will continue to be calls for major cuts in all federal funding and, more specifically, for agriculture, which has fared better than any number of other industries in the last few years.

“It’s really a good time for agriculture,” Stabenow told the Huron Daily Tribune last week. “Prices are up. But at the same time, I can’t imagine a riskier business. It only takes a few days of bad weather to cause trouble.”

Stabenow says the focus in the farm bill needs to be on risk management. “The thing I’ve heard loudly and clearly is that there needs to be a safety net there when there’s a loss,” she said. “Crop insurance is really important when there’s a loss because of bad weather. That’s when there needs to be support.”

Last winter, House Republicans proposed $30 billion in cuts to commodities and crop insurance, $18 billion to conservation, and $127 billion to nutrition programs, which make up a substantial chunk of the farm bill. The White House followed up with a 2012 budget bill that would have reduced agriculture by $33 billion. Both proposals targeted direct payments to commodities farmers. The payments have become a target in Washington as farmers have thrived in recent years.

Agriculture came under scrutiny by the so-called congressional super committee last fall, as lawmakers looked to strip $1.2 trillion from the federal budget. To avoid a bloodletting, Stabenow worked with her House GOP counterpart to find an acceptable compromise. The two found agreement, proposing $23 billion in cuts — or 2 percent of the overall super committee reduction target. Coincidentally, or not, agriculture makes up 2 percent of total federal spending.

Despite the failure of the super committee to act last fall, the negotiations proved a victory for Stabenow, who was able to make friends (and some enemies, of course) in both parties and among the interest groups lobbying on the bill. She also was able to chart a reasonable course for how to best cast the farm bill during negotiations in 2012.

All this comes as Stabenow is facing a potentially difficult re-election this fall. Former U.S. Rep. Pete Hoekstra of Holland and Clark Durant, a Grosse Pointe attorney and charter school executive, are the top GOP contenders to face her in November. Neither man is a novice and both have access to money, but they face an uphill battle. Stabenow has rarely lost an election in her many years in office, and she is a fervent and focused fighter.

A November EPIC-MRA poll showed Stabenow ahead of both Hoekstra (six points) and Durant (20 points), but Stabenow had less-than-compelling job approval ratings, 41 percent approved of her work and 52 percent didn’t. Hoekstra and Durant had bigger problems, though; both were “unknown” by a significant portion of those polled.

Additionally, a January 9 online poll by asked which candidate Republican voters would most like to see take on Stabenow in 2012. Durant led the field with 27 percent, followed by former Kent County juvenile court judge Randy Hekman (20 percent), Hoekstra (18 percent), American Family Association of Michigan President Gary Glenn (13 percent), software developer and businessman Peter Konetchy (12 percent) and Howell businessman Chuck Marino (4 percent). This plethora of options is not a good sign for Republicans, who need to rally behind a candidate early and conclusively to gain the money and momentum to beat Stabenow.

So, as the GOP candidates are bickering among themselves this spring and summer, Stabenow will be leading an effort to champion Michigan agriculture in Washington. Agriculture contributes more than $71 billion annually to the Michigan economy, and it accounts for one out of every four jobs in the state. It is the Michigan economy’s second-largest sector.

The current farm bill expires in September 2012, and successful passage of the bill before the November election would be a feather in Stabenow’s cap. She says she’s determined to protect crop insurance from reductions — and even expand it so all crops can be adequately protected. She also expects lawmakers will continue to move away from direct payments, but there will be plenty of financial opportunities in the bill for Michigan’s specialty crops of fruits and vegetables — a cause dear to Stabenow’s heart.

“From every direction, people have been calling for huge cuts to production agriculture at a time when agriculture is one of the few bright spots in our economy,” Stabenow said recently in a speech to the Michigan Agri-Business Association’s 79th Annual Winter Conference. “Agriculture has already done more than its part. Crop insurance and research have both taken big cuts already, so I have been very concerned that agriculture has become an easy target for drastic cuts.”

Stabenow is also likely to push her “Grow it Here, Make it Here” initiative to boost domestic bio-based manufacturing. There are some 80 companies in Michigan making bio-based products, such as soaps, cleaning products, plastics, fabrics and foam products, some of which are used by the auto companies.

While Congress can take years to complete critical bills like the farm bill, there is enough pressure from people on both sides of the aisle to get it done this year, even if an election is looming. Stabenow will be a critical player in whether Congress completes its work or not, and she is moving with speed and determination to get the bill done.

A victory on the bill, of course, would translate into great PR for Stabenow as she campaigns this fall, although the double-edged sword of policy-making can cut two ways if the bill angers some stakeholders who take their complaints to the voters.

Ultimately, Stabenow’s chairmanship is good news for Michigan, its economy and its farmers, even if it proves to be bad news for her political enemies, many of whom may be actively rooting and conspiring against her as she tackles one of the biggest assignments of her long legislative career.

Only time will tell whether politics or policy wins out — for either party.

Sarah Kellogg covered the Michigan congressional delegation and the federal government as the chief Washington correspondent for Booth Newspapers for 14 years. Before joining the Washington Bureau, Sarah covered state politics and government in the Booth Newspapers Lansing Bureau and directed Lansing coverage for United Press International. She helped launch MIRS’ Capitol Capsule, and served as its first writer and editor. A regular Dome columnist, she currently works as a freelance writer and editor for regional and national publications.

January 16, 2012 · Filed under DC Tags: , , ,

34 responses so far ↓

  • 1 harvey bronstein // Jan 18, 2012 at 6:05 pm

    Never underestimate Debbie Stabenow.

  • 2 Diane Culter // Jan 19, 2012 at 5:43 pm

    At the school where I teach, we are planning a school hoop-house for the students to learn more about farming and science. We also have many community members volunteering to assist in this event. I hope that the state government can help via grants, etc. to help make this an on-going success this year.

  • 3 David Gilstrap // Feb 4, 2012 at 10:17 am

    It will be interesting to see if Farm Bureau once again does not endorse Stabinow, i.e., declare her a “Friend of Agriculture” with its follow up hefty contribution. In 2008, they of course went for that farmboy Bouchard whom garnered just over 40% of the votes. Over the years, FB’s continued rebuffs bear out that their first priority is not the agriculture industry but the insurance industry.

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