Conner takes over farm bill battle

Mike Johanns resignation as secretary of agriculture to run for a senate seat from Nebraska could be seen as a blow to the Bush administration's efforts to influence the 2007 farm bill.

After all, Johanns personally moderated dozens of the farm bill forums USDA conducted in all but one of the 48 states to help the administration develop its recommendations for the new farm bill, the first farm bill proposal actually drafted by the Agriculture Department since the 1980s.

But Washington insiders say they doubt the administration's farm bill lobbying efforts will skip a beat with Deputy Secretary Charles Conner being named acting secretary by President Bush.

“Johanns may have been the front man for the administration's farm bill effort, but Chuck Conner is the guy with the nuts and bolts experience with actually writing a bill,” said one observer, referring to Conner's stint as staff director for the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry.

Conner, a former special assistant to the president for agricultural trade and food assistance, grew up on a farm in Indiana. His brother, Mike, still operates the family farm in Benton County.

“Deputy Secretary Conner has been intimately involved in the farm bill deliberations — from the development of our proposals to his attendance at virtually every hearing during the House mark-up,” said Johanns in his letter of resignation. “Few are as knowledgeable and insightful about farm bill policy.”

Speculation that Johanns would run for the Senate began shortly after Nebraska Sen. Chuck Hagel announced he would not seek re-election to the Senate. Johanns was serving in his second term as governor of Nebraska when President Bush named him to succeed Ann Veneman as agriculture secretary in 2005.

Within months of his confirmation, Johanns announced a series of farm bill listening sessions that began with a farm bill forum in Nashville, Tenn. The forum was attended by several hundred farmers and carried to a nationwide TV audience.

The listening sessions became the basis for a series of position papers that eventually turned into a sweeping set of proposals by the Bush administration aimed at reforming farm programs.

Not that those proposals have been gaining much traction. The House Agriculture Committee rejected most of the administration's farm bill language when the committee met to mark up its version of the new law in July.

Some provisions of the USDA proposals — primarily a nationally targeted revenue counter-cyclical payment program and a reduction in adjusted gross income eligibility criteria for farm program payments closer to the $200,000 cutoff Johanns proposed — have support in the Senate ag committee, sources say.

In a statement at the White House, the president said Johanns had “worked hard to put in motion a good farm bill…a framework for success.

“I got feedback from all around America that Mike Johanns listened, he wisely shepherded the process in such a way that we've got a good farm bill in front of the Congress,” the president said. “I want to thank you for your good work getting this teed up.”

Johanns applauded Conner's selection as his successor, calling Conner a “good man who shares our passion for agriculture. I can assure you that I leave the farm bill finalization in supremely capable hands.”

Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman Tom Harkin said he had been impressed by how involved Johanns was in the farm bill process. “I felt that as secretary, Mike Johanns had a positive effect on the Conservation Security Program, as well as renewable energy and bio-based products.

“Of course our vital work on the farm bill must go forward. Chuck Connor is a good choice to serve as acting secretary. I have known him for over 20 years and believe his involvement in this farm bill process will make for a smooth transition.”

Farm and commodity groups also expressed their appreciation for Johanns' service.

“Secretary Johanns was an ardent advocate for American agriculture's ability to provide renewable energy for our nation,” said American Farm Bureau President Bob Stallman.

“Mike Johanns always made it a priority to meet with farmers and ranchers during his tenure as agriculture secretary. He was one of the most accessible secretaries of agriculture we have had in recent memory. We always felt that the Secretary Johanns would take the time to listen.

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