TOPEKA — Twenty-one years ago, a Ph.D. student at American University wrote a 400-page dissertation on congressional agriculture committees. Now, that student, Tim Huelskamp, is embroiled in a re-election primary fight centered, in part, on his removal from the House Agriculture Committee.
In the dissertation, Huelskamp rails against New Deal-era agriculture subsidies and price supports, saying they “ignored the productivity advances in the industry, not to mention any semblance of economic reality.”
The direct subsidies of the 1930s and 1940s — which paid farmers to plant crops or, in some cases, to not plant crops — have, to some extent, been replaced by crop insurance and comparable government programs, some of which Huelskamp favors and some he doesn’t.
“I don’t think there’s any industry that wants handouts but yes, there comes a point in time when we need safety nets,” said Rich Felts, president of the Kansas Farm Bureau.
The federal government spends tens of billions of dollars annually on those safety nets, such as price loss coverage, a program that pays farmers if national commodity prices dip too low. That coverage, which Huelskamp supports, was codified in the 2014 farm bill, which Huelskamp voted against.
That is indicative of the sometimes conflicting desires of Republicans in western and central Kansas who must juggle fiscal conservatism — a guiding principle for Huelskamp — with the need for federal farm programs that often are bundled in bloated farm bills.
“The word ‘subsidy,’ I think, doesn’t ring a positive chord with anyone,” Felts said.
Citing research from other scholars, Huelskamp’s dissertation refers to the House Agriculture Committee and Senate Agriculture Committee as “outlier panels” that “over-represent rural and agricultural interests.” Again citing the work of scholars, he wrote that subsidy proponents use subsidies to “stir up emotional support during re-election campaigns.”
Reached by phone, Huelskamp objected to questions about his dissertation, calling them “outrageous” and accusing a reporter of colluding with a rival campaign.
“There is no doubt farmers need to be on the Ag Committee,” Huelskamp said. “That just makes sense.”
The congressman is being challenged by Roger Marshall, a physician from Great Bend, in a competitive race leading to a Republican primary Aug. 2. Marshall has been critical of Huelskamp’s opposition to the 2014 farm bill and a massive government funding bill that renewed billions of dollars in crop insurance last December.
“Career politicians like Tim Huelskamp believe Congress ‘over-represents agricultural interests’ of rural Kansas,” Marshall said. “On the contrary, I believe maintaining a safe, reliable, affordable food source is not only a top economic priority, but also a top national security priority.”
On the issue of alternative energy subsidies, the two Republicans have different positions. Huelskamp has stated his support for phasing out such subsidies, saying the government is distorting the energy market by choosing winners and losers. Marshall supports energy subsidies, such as the renewable fuel standard.
“We should be doing everything we can to support and promote the bounty of natural resources we have right here in Kansas, both for our safety and our economy,” he said. “That includes ethanol, wind, solar, oil and natural gas.”
Huelskamp’s dissertation, submitted in 1995, is a thoroughly researched and dryly written summation of farm bills from 1970 to 1990 and how they came to be passed through committees. Citing previous research by congressional scholars, he refers to the House Agriculture Committee as a “constituent” and “re-election” committee rather than a prestige committee, like Ways and Means, or policy committee, such as the House Foreign Affairs Committee.
In a particularly prescient passage, Huelskamp quotes a congressman as saying, “I told them that I really need to be on that committee ... that my re-election to Congress depended on whether I got a seat on the (Ag) Committee.” In another interview, a congressman tells Huelskamp, “Once you’re on the Ag Committee, it is very difficult to get off.”
Two decades later, Huelskamp has been assuring voters he will return to the House Agriculture Committee, which he was taken off of in 2013 following squabbles with Republican leadership, namely former House Speaker John Boehner.
The congressman, who is a member of the influential House Steering Committee that coordinates committee assignments, said Thursday he anticipates returning to the committee after the November elections. He touted his work as a fifth-generation farmer and accused his opponent of lacking hands-on experience.
“He is a doctor. He is not a farmer. He wears scrubs to work,” Huelskamp said of Marshall.
Before all Republican voters have an opportunity to choose between the candidates, Kansas Farm Bureau members will. After a June 1 filing deadline, county farm bureaus in central and western Kansas will meet to decide who, if anyone, they should endorse.
“If they want to endorse someone, they will,” said John Schlageck with the Kansas Farm Bureau. “If they don’t have enough support or they don’t want to endorse, they sometimes abstain from doing that. It’s what our farmers, ranchers and producers decide is best for farmers and ranchers.”