Stenholm surfaces as possible ag secretary

Could Texas Democrat Charles Stenholm be offered the position of agriculture secretary in the Bush administration?

Stenholm, who represents Texas' 17th District in Congress, reportedly is a leading candidate for the post along with Ann Veneman, who served as an undersecretary at USDA under George W. Bush's father.

Farm organization leaders from the South would be glad to see someone of Stenholm's stature take the No. 1 job at USDA, especially after the decidedly Midwestern bent taken by the department the last six years.

The rub could be that the House Democratic leadership would be reluctant to give up a seat that could be filled by a Republican, thus increasing the narrow margin Republicans will enjoy in the House in the next Congress.

Stenholm is among several Democrats being mentioned for possible cabinet posts as the Bush transition team tries to broaden its base of support in the aftermath of one of the most contentious elections in American history. (Democratic Senators Tom Harkin of Iowa and John Breaux of Louisiana have also been listed as possibilities.)

Glickman, who has said he would not serve beyond the current administration, endorsed Stenholm as a candidate for secretary during a press conference following a dedication ceremony at USDA headquarters in Washington.

As one of the leaders of the moderate "Blue Dog" Democrat faction in the House, Stenholm is seen as someone who could reach across the aisle to Republicans and still command the respect of members of his own party.

A 21-year veteran of Congress who was elected ranking minority member on the House Agriculture Committee, Stenholm certainly is familiar with the problems of agriculture. He began his working life as a vocational ag teacher and is actively involved in his Jones County cotton farm.

Three years ago, Stenholm and Rep. Marion Berry, D-Ark., went to see Vice President Al Gore to ask him to try to restore some sense of reason to EPA's implementation of the Food Quality Protection Act. While it may not have been all that Stenholm wanted, Gore wrote a letter ordering the agency to follow sound science in its decision-making.

More recently, Stenholm tried to get the House Agriculture Committee to adopt a "supplemental income protection" plan that would provide payments to farmers in times of low prices. The Republican majority voted it down.

You would like to think that as a member of the administration whose party will control Congress for at least the next two years Stenholm would have more success in implementing his ideas. But, that may be expecting too much.

Many observers felt that in the earlier Bush administration, Secretary of State James Baker was the true secretary of agriculture, calling the shots on agricultural trade issues and other policy matters.

Unless the new Bush administration is more willing to put agricultural interests first, it may be that Stenholm's considerable abilities would be largely wasted as its secretary of agriculture.

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