by Ken Root
Do you remember “Blue Dog Democrats”? At one time there were about sixty conservatives from that party who proudly belonged to a loosely formed caucus by that name. Now, there is just one: Colin Peterson, from Minnesota. He isn’t anyone’s favorite person as he won’t adhere to a philosophy that puts him on the right or on the left. He spoke about the precarious political future for moderates in either party last week as I attended a media briefing in Washington, D.C.
Peterson, 71, represents a huge district that covers almost all of the western third of Minnesota. It has forty-nine thousand farm operators on over twenty-two thousand square miles of farmland. The district is obviously rural and leans republican but he has remained in office for twenty-five years. As far as anyone getting a handle on him, he is rated 50% conservative by a conservative group and 57% progressive by a liberal group. He is an avid sportsman and sometimes wears a camouflage padded shoulder hunting shirt while working in his office. On more than one occasion he has threatened to put birdshot in the backside of Senate staffers who came over to lobby him on behalf of their bosses. He has been known to dance with Democratic Senate leader, Nancy Pelosi, during a National Farmer’s Union convention and has a band called: “Second Amendments”. Peterson sings and plays guitar and is accompanied by four republicans on various instruments. Peterson has been Chairman of the House Agriculture Committee and moved back to ranking member when republicans won the majority.
He is an accountant by training and profession before entering politics and numbers seem to remain his link to reality. “We are getting a lot of complaints that the farm bill is not adequate. ‘My response,” he quips, “Is I told you so!” But he became more serious as he laid out the cycle of prices that went “too high” and production that went “too high” followed by prices that are “too low”. He worries that the floor price on commodity crops is not adequate to handle bad times but the Senate demanded the ARC program so he and the House chairman, Frank Lucas, lost in their quest for higher floor prices in the 2014 bill. “It shows you shouldn’t write a farm bill when prices are relatively high. It’s not a good deal. Prices are probably going to go lower than they are now and some will want to open up the farm bill. There’s not a lot of stomach from this member to do so.”
Prompted by a question on what he thought about the current standoff in the Senate over GMO Labeling, he said: “Well I could (tell you) but it probably wouldn’t be smart!” At that point, he became reflective about the divisiveness in the political system. “It doesn’t pay off in this political climate to take a middle of the road position.” He explained the reality of every House member having to run against “wingnuts” in their own party who position themselves as more extreme than the current members. “Bill Schuster (R-PA) and Chairman of the Transportation Committee just barely survived his primary because he is being too bipartisan in trying to do a highway bill or an FAA bill.” He concluded: “You are not rewarded for working across the aisle, you’re punished.”
Asked how he survives, he stated flatly: “I say what I think!” He went on to quote a political friend who said about him: “You were Trump before Trump existed.”
Peterson outwardly is brash but internally calculating. He knows when he can push his own party and when he should fold the tent. During the 2013-2014 farm bill debate, he agreed to take the bill forward on the floor of the House from the Democrat perspective while Chairman Frank Lucas led the Republicans. Both men saw their positions threatened by their own parties early on in the debate. Lucas couldn’t keep his party from bringing forth amendments to limit food and nutrition payments and Peterson couldn’t hold his members in line as their major constituency was threatened. The result was Peterson saying an amendment requiring work or job training to remain qualified for SNAP was “one straw too many” and the bill was defeated for the first time in modern history.
Whether you like him or not, Peterson has farmer’s backs as he plays the political game. “We have to keep the 1949 law in place,” referring to the permanent agricultural legislation that would become primary if a farm bill runs out without a replacement or extension. “If we get to September 30th of 2018 and can’t get a bill done, and that is more likely than not, the leadership, whoever they are, would make us cut the cut of an extension. But all of a sudden you are looking at permanent law with sixteen dollar wheat, nine dollar corn and thirty-two dollar milk.” He smiled and said: “At that point, extending the current law looks like a pretty good bargain.” The cagy old Congressman rested his case for having the permanent law as a hammer to use in a future emergency.
As we finished our days of talking to government agencies and elected officials, it became clear that we want government to solve our problems for us but when they go to Washington and get established in a political environment, they need to solve their problems first. We have allowed political operatives of both parties to skew congressional districts to the point they are non-competitive except within their democrat or republican designation. The only way to gain the seat is to be more extreme than the current member. That moves the incumbent away from the center and polarizes the body even more. As a result, we have more citizen problems that are less solvable by elected government because of our own actions.
In November, we will elect one third of Senate and all of the House of Representatives. Chances are, even as angry as we are at government for its dysfunctional behavior, ninety percent of incumbents will return. Not only that, we will elect our president from a field that has resorted to every campaign tactic short of cage fighting, to win the office. The words of the Prophet Hosea ring far too true:
“For they sow the wind and they reap the whirlwind. The standing grain has no heads; It yields no grain. Should it yield, strangers would swallow it up.”