Sen. Richard Lugar (R, IN) lost his bid for reelection; Sen. Kent Conrad (D, ND)retired; Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R, GA) announced last week he’s had it with the gridlock and infighting in the Senate and will not run again in 2014. This week, Sen. Tom Harkin (D, IA) announced he’s not going to run again in two years because, as he succinctly put it, “It’s time.”
Harkin’s announcement is kind of the tipping point for a lot of ag lobbyists in town who’ve watched the likes of Sen. Byron Dorgan (D, ND), Sen. Tom Daschle (D, SD), Sen. Alan Simpson (R, WY) and other ag champions depart the Senate either by choice or whim of the electorate.
Lugar, Harkin and Chambliss each served as chair of the Senate Agriculture Committee, Harkin having wielded the gavel on two separate occasions; Chambliss and Lugar sat in the ranking member chair; all three have always been stalwart champions of agriculture. Conrad was the protector of all things budgetary, while bringing serious brainpower to the ag committee. All have survived Farm Bills as far back as 1980.
These gentlemen may have come at these roles from different regional perspectives, but rarely did they allow political affiliation to get in the way of fostering U.S. agriculture.
(Harkin is the trifecta of key Senate influence; he’s chair of the Senate Health, Education, Labor & Pensions (HELP) Committee, which oversee all things FDA and food safety; he’s a senior member of the Senate Agriculture Committee, and he sits as a senior member of the Senate Appropriations Committee which decides how much money gets spent on USDA and FDA programs. If there is loss by degree, Harkin’s departure will leave the biggest void.)
I’m ambivalent about these gentlemen leaving the Senate. On one hand, that’s going to be a major brain drain and a lot of institutional memory lost. I fear losing even a scintilla of agriculture expertise and understanding on Capitol Hill. On the other hand, as Harkin aptly put it, it’s time.
I’ve heard the gnashing of teeth among veteran lobbyists over these resignations – and it’s bicameral as senior House members announce they’ll not run again or lose reelection. I think it has more to do with personal self-interest than it does with good governance. I see these departures as the natural order, one which should be fostered and encouraged.
I used to rail against term limits. I’d wax eloquent about the loss of institutional memory, the loss of expertise, etc. More often than not – if I was being totally honest – I was afraid of losing those with whom I had close working relationships, I was afraid of losing my champions. Conversely, there isn’t a lobbyist in DC who doesn’t have a list of Senators and House members he or she believes have stayed past their prime. These are often members who routinely oppose what you’re paid to promote.
However, those in Congress who’ve been around long enough to amass tremendous individual power through seniority, fundraising and deal cutting also tend generally to be those for whom the retirement has no meaning. They believe they hold their jobs by dint of charisma and superior intellect. They forget who elected them and why, save for those six months just prior to the election.
I believe we should limit Senators to three terms – 18 years in one gig is long enough for anyone – and we should limit House members in a similar fashion. I also firmly believe it’s time to limit the number of years any individual can hold a leadership job. We currently limit in both chambers the number of consecutive committee chairmanships a member can hold; this same logic and justification should be extended to the Senate Majority Leader, his minority counterpart, the Speaker of the House, the minority leader and their “teams” as well.
It’s never good to put too much power in any one person or group of people. It’s very good to get outside our comfort zone once in a while.
My wife keeps telling me “change is good.” And ultimately, I’ve learned it generally is. It’s good to bring in new blood, new perspectives, new thinking and new energy. It’s our job to find those aggies who are smart, eager and crazy enough to want to sit in Congress working for the good of U.S. agriculture.
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