If some farm-state congressional leaders show a little jealousy toward Larry Combest and Charlie Stenholm, it would be understandable. Stenholm, a Democrat, represents the 17th Congressional District of Texas. Combest, a Republican, is Texas' 19th District congressman. The districts border one another.
But their neighborly situation is unique in that Combest is chairman of the House Agriculture Committee, while Stenholm is the committee's ranking minority member. They are the most senior of the 51-member Ag Committee. And when they speak, others listen closely.
Many feel that even though they are of different political parties, their long-time friendship and closeness on most issues helped bring about one of the swiftest writings of the House of Representative's version of a new farm bill, HR2646, that ag policy makers can remember.
Stenholm and Combest have their fingers crossed that a final House-Senate compromise bill will be signed by President George W. Bush before year's end. And both see their bipartisanship — as well as the overall committee's bipartisanship — as the primary reason why the new legislation has come a year before expiration of the 1996 Farm Bill.
“So much of the talk on bipartisanship you hear is just words,” says Stenholm. “On the Ag Committee, it's not just words, it's deeds.
”To my knowledge, there is only one other (congressional) committee that operates in such a bipartisan way,” he adds. “And it's the way government ought to work. I'm very appreciative of Chairman Combest's leadership in that direction. It makes our ability to do our work much easier.”
Combest emphasizes that the Ag Committee was not interested in playing petty partisan politics with an issue that impacts such a vital industry. “Rather, we were intent on fixing the problems that have plagued so many agricultural producers across the nation,” he told Soybean Digest. “Designing a piece of legislation to encompass such a broad array of commodities and geographical needs requires coordination from all sides of the political spectrum.”
Stenholm has served on the committee since he was elected to Congress in the late 1970s. He is still involved in his family cotton farm near Abilene. Combest was raised in the Texas Panhandle town of Memphis. Unlike Stenholm, whose district is primarily cotton, wheat and cattle country, Combest represents an area diversified in corn, soybeans, cotton, wheat, grain sorghum, peanuts and cattle.
Secretary of Agriculture Ann Veneman, who worked with Stenholm on ag issues during her stint in the USDA under former President George H. Bush, sees Stenholm as a true fighter for farmers and rural America. “We worked together on listening sessions with growers on how the USDA could better deliver services to the field,” she said during a recent agricultural summit in Lubbock, TX. “I appreciate Congressman Stenholm's continuing support in this regard.”
Longevity on the Ag Committee is not commonplace. There is only one other congressman who was around with Combest and Stenholm for writing the 1990 Farm Bill: Rep. Gary Condit of California.
Those fresh faces around Washington are another reason why Veneman is thankful for their seniority. “In the eight years since I left the USDA, there has been over a 60% turnover in the Congress,” Veneman noted, and there has been even more on the Ag Committee. “I certainly am lucky to have Chairman Combest and Charlie Stenholm to work with,” she says.
Even though Texas is home, don't think Combest and Stenholm favor their growers over those in the Corn Belt. U.S. Rep. Mike Pence, R-IN, believes the philosophical closeness of Stenholm and Combest helped “minimize partisan disputes during the legislative process” in writing the Farm Bill. “They looked out for the interests of the Southwest, but they also worked hard to accommodate everyone involved in putting this bill together,” he says.
U.S. Rep. David Phelps, D-IL, also sees virtue in the Combest-Stenholm situation. He enjoys Combest's “laid back” approach. “As a second term'er, and even in my first term when I served on the committee, I was so impressed with Congressman Combest's style,” he says. “He's been very cooperative and has encouraged input from both sides.”
From the heartland in Nebraska, farm-raised freshman U.S. Rep. Tom Osborne says the in-fighting often seen in Congress is absent on the Ag Committee. “They (Combest and Stenholm) care about agriculture.
“Everyone realizes that agriculture is in the minority in Congress,” Osborne says. “There are only about 60 congressmen who are primarily from agricultural districts. If we don't work together, we don't have much of a chance of getting anything done.”
Phelps says the fact that both were from Texas — and close friends — was a definite plus. “If not for those two working together, we'd still be debating this thing at this time next year,” he stressed.
What about the home-state relationship between Combest, Stenholm and President Bush, who in the early '80s ran and lost the congressional seat later taken by Combest? Did it help sway the president to sign the $5.6 billion agricultural economic assistance package in August?
Combest says the Bush administration recognizes the importance of bipartisanship and has named many from outside the Republican Party to fill high-level positions. “Therefore, it only stands to reason that the administration would appreciate the unique bipartisan coordination of the House Agriculture Committee,” he says.
“Having two Texans to work with on the Agriculture Committee surely made it easier for President Bush,” says Indiana's Pence. “It would be hard to overestimate the importance of having familiar faces leading the debate in Washington on any policy issue.”
With the Ag Committee as a whole, Osborne sees an invisible party line between the committee and the president. And, he believes, the fact that the committee's top hands are from Texas certainly doesn't hurt.
“It might have had some impact on the administration,” says Osborne. “One factor the president is very aware of is that most of farm country voted for George Bush. When he looks at the map he can see those states are solidly behind him. I don't think he will turn his back on the farm economy.”
To get a jump-start to discussions, Combest and other committee members began hosting hearings in March of 2000 in their quest to determine the new Farm Bill's needs.
Veneman commended this early start and says the Bush administration's goal is to “work with Congress to draft a sound and fair farm safety net that avoids any elements of policy that would hurt rather than help farmers during tough economic times.”
Combest sees the early Farm Bill success as a win-win for agriculture. “The ability of committee members to work in harmony can provide the administration with clear direction on issues important to a vast array of agricultural producers and consumers,” he notes.