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 Conner 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 Sec. Johanns would take the time to listen.
But Johanns' resignation was not greeted warmly by everyone in Washington. Sen. Kent Conrad, D-N.D., and a member of the Senate Agriculture Committee, said Johanns' timing was not the best.
“I am a big believer in the adage that you always finish what you start,” he said in a statement. “It is completely irresponsible for the secretary of agriculture to leave his post right in the middle of negotiations in Congress over the next farm bill.”
Conrad acknowledged he had never agreed with Johanns and the administration's farm bill proposal. “Their plan undermines U.S. farm policy and guts the current bill. However, Sec. Johanns has a responsibility to America's farmers and ranchers. I would have thought the secretary would have stayed at his post until the major responsibility of that post was completed.”
Following is the letter sent by Johanns to President Bush in which Johanns informs the president of his intentions to resign.
Dear Mr. President,
It has been a great honor to serve you and the American people as Secretary of Agriculture for nearly three years. After careful thought and difficult deliberation, I am writing to inform you that I have decided to pursue a new opportunity to serve this great Nation. Please accept my resignation effective today, September 19, 2007, and my gratitude for the distinct privilege to serve in your Cabinet.
Under your leadership and vision, American agriculture is stronger than ever before in history. Your presidency has had a profoundly positive impact on the lives of Americans in both rural and urban communities.
Farm equity, now at $2 trillion, has increased $200 billion per year for the past several years. The debt-to-asset ratio is the lowest in more than 45 years. Projected 2007 net cash income is a record high $86 billion. The average farm household income is projected at $81,500 this year, nearly $20,000 above the average household income in the U.S. Overall farm balance sheets reveal a strong and growing farm economy.
Agricultural exports are expected to set a fourth consecutive record this year, with a projected value of $79 billion. The strong stance you've taken with international leaders in relation to beef trade has led to the re-opening of more than 40 key markets to U.S. beef. This year, U.S. beef exports have increased 18% over last year and negotiations are underway to achieve additional market openings.
Your compassion toward the hungry is evidenced in the 70% increase in funding for USDA nutrition programs during your presidency. One million additional school children are being served lunch under our program; 700,000 women, infants and children have been added to the WIC program; and nine million additional low-income Americans are participating in the Food Stamp Program. One in five Americans is now touched by the nutrition safety net you have built.
Because of your ambitious conservation goals, for the first time in living memory, America is gaining wetlands instead of losing them. Overall, you have more than doubled the number of acres enrolled in USDA conservation programs, now totaling a remarkable 184 million acres.
I also want to thank you for your direction related to the 2007 farm bill. Your suggestion to talk to as many farmers, ranchers and stakeholders as possible in developing the Administration's 2007 farm bill proposal proved very wise. As you know, their comments formed the foundation of our proposals, which focus our programs while providing unwavering commitment to U.S. agriculture. Nearly 200 newspaper editorials nationwide have applauded the Administration's vision. Several of our ideas are now part of the House-passed farm bill and my hope is that even will be adopted by the Senate.
I can assure you that I leave the farm bill finalization in supremely capable hands. Deputy Secretary Chuck Conner has been intimately involved in the deliberations — from the development of our proposals to his attendance at virtually every hearing during the House mark-up. Few people are as knowledgeable and insightful about farm bill policy. He is supported by some of the most dedicated civil servants in the federal government.
Mr. President, you should be very proud of the men and women of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. A cornerstone of your leadership is recognizing that people are our greatest resource. You have a gold mine at USDA. It has been my honor to work alongside them.
On a very personal note, I'd like to express my deepest gratitude for your confidence and support. For a farm boy from Iowa, this truly has been an opportunity of a lifetime. As I have often noted, I never dreamed of becoming Secretary of Agriculture as a child because it seemed so far removed from our 160-acre farm. I hope young people growing-up on farms and in rural communities today realize that no dream is too big in America.