Democrat Rep. Marion Berry of Arkansas’ First District never met a populist issue he wasn’t ready to wave like a red cape in front of a bull. But, in my experience and to his credit, Berry rarely asked for something to be off the record and he never asked to rephrase a quote. I’m sure that gave his press handlers headaches but it often amused me.
Earlier this year, citing health issues, Berry declined to run for office again.
Now, Chad Causey, Berry’s chief of staff for the last few years, is running to replace his old boss. He’s in a tough fight. I’ve known Causey – a smart, reasonable, level-headed Arkansan -- for nearly a decade. He certainly knows agriculture, especially the Mid-South variety.
Causey – who was born and raised in Jonesboro, Ark., and has a law degree from the University of Arkansas -- recently spoke with Delta Farm Press from the campaign trail. Among his comments:
Views on agriculture…
“My experience in agriculture has been as it relates to my work for the First Congressional District. I was the policy director for all the work done by (Berry’s office) on the 2002 farm bill when Rep. Berry was on the House Agriculture Committee.
“For the 2008 farm bill, I was Rep. Berry’s chief of staff and managed his work as it related to the bill.”
Can you talk about the main issues then compared with what you expect from the next farm bill?
“I think the issues are largely the same. Are we going to continue producing the safest, most affordable food supply in the world? That was the issue in 2002 and 2008 and will be again in 2012.
“The American farmer – especially the Mid-South farmer – has the only profession I know of where you’re penalized for being efficient. That’s what (government) policies have done. As producers get more efficient, the support mechanisms -- needed to ensure they maintain that ability to produce food and fiber in the interest of national security – are put into jeopardy every five years when we write a new farm bill.
“An example of being penalized for efficiency is the 2002 farm bill. Look at what it was projected to spend versus what it actually ended up costing. I believe it was about $35 billion under-budget.
“Well, for the 2008 farm bill, those savings weren’t captured but spending was ratcheted down. We wrote a farm bill with less money than the 2002 bill. And if the projections hold that I saw a few months ago, we’ll save another $30-plus billion over what the 2008 farm bill was expected to cost.
“That surprises a lot of people. It’s the only bill I know of that saves money – and that’s a good thing. It’s a minimal investment for national security.
“I don’t want to paint with too broad a brush, but we must maintain the ability to produce food and fiber in this country. The day we get our food supply from other countries is a sad day. I’ll continue to fight to make sure our producers stay in business and they’re able to continue despite, in many cases, unfair competition abroad…
“I’m well aware of how critical the next farm bill will be. Soon after the next member of Congress from this district is sworn in, we’ll begin the debate.
“I’ve been there, have worked on the 2002 and 2008 farm bills. I know how to get the job done for Mid-South farmers. No one will work harder or be a stronger advocate for Mid-South agriculture than I will.”
Your former boss was always front-and-center talking about trade deals and worrying that the American farmer got the best shake. Can you talk about the pending trade deals in Cuba, Panama, Columbia and South Korea?
“We must gain more access for rice, poultry and other ag products in Cuba. I support increasing trade through the reduction of red tape that currently prevents us from providing credit sales and requires third-party vendors.
“Without hesitation, I wholeheartedly support increasing trade with Cuba. It’s far past time to do that. That is a large, growing market with potential for American … farmers.
“I also support the Columbia and Panama trade agreements, as well.
“I have a problem with the South Korea agreements. Our negotiators allowed rice to be taken off the table before they even negotiated that deal. That was wrong.
“For decades, our trade negotiators have looked at agriculture as something to trade away. Or they look for promised access 20 or 30 years down the road instead of fighting for increased access (immediately). They trade away (ag products) to gain access for other goods and I disagree with that.
“That’s why the South Korea deal should be reworked.”
On renewable fuels…
“I’m for a somewhat comprehensive approach to energy production. I believe that this is a chance for our country to move in a new direction with energy. This is where we should be pursuing a national policy for energy independence for America.
“That requires a comprehensive solution: biofuels, nuclear power, natural gas, wind, solar and domestic oil production, done safely.
“Once we’re producing all the energy we’re consuming – and producing all here at home, not buying it from overseas – it’ll be safer, cleaner and more affordable. We’re spending over $300 billion on foreign oil. Imagine reinvesting that money here at home, growing our economy, building infrastructure to pipe natural gas, building 35 additional nuclear power plants across the nation.
“That also will provide good, long-term jobs and new businesses, new research and development that will grow new technologies in the biofuels arena. The potential is enormous…
“And we’ll be growing our economy which will allow us to shore up Social Security, Medicare and pay down our debt. This country’s debt is out of control and we’ve got to live within our means. Growing revenue through American energy independence is one way to get there.”
I take it you’re for incorporating the university programs – Extension/university research – into that. I know they’re doing a lot of that already. You’d ramp up (their research)?
“What I’m talking about isn’t anything new for some. There are wonderful, talented people -- throughout the Mid-South, in particular – who have been working on research and development of these technologies for years. Let’s build on what they’re already doing.
“We just need to put the spotlight on them and give them more help, put the collective power of the American people behind them. We can get to energy independence and it’s a shame we aren’t already there. There’s no excuse. We have all the capabilities in the world and we can solve these problems.”
There’s a wide range of beliefs regarding (government response) to health care. But, specifically, I want to ask you about medicines since you’ve been under the tutelage of the only pharmacist that was in Congress. Would you be for allowing imports? Negotiating with the drug companies?
“I’m for a mix of the two. I’m a strong believer in allowing the Health and Human Services Secretary to negotiate the price of prescription drugs purchased through Medicare.
“The Veterans Administration has the ability to negotiate the price paid for veteran’s drugs. That provides affordable medicines for our brave men and women who have served our country and earned that health care.
“We should be doing the same thing through Medicare. We should negotiate in bulk rates for medicines supported by taxpayer dollars.
“It’s estimated, if we do that, we’d save $40 billion to $50 billion a year in prescription drug prices. And that’s just on the Medicare side.
“This seems to be a no-brainer for me. Let’s drive down the costs of these prescription drugs.
“There’s a lot of good, hard-working folks in rural America. Many of them are living solely on a Social Security check. Maybe they get a little more from pension. But they’re spending the bulk of that sometimes when taking five or six prescriptions. That eats up their ability to pay the light and food bills.
“Re-importation of drugs, if done in the right way, (should be considered). The same drugs made here are being made (abroad) by the same companies. There’s no difference between the medicines except (abroad) they’re cheaper. Sometimes (such drugs) sold here are four – sometimes 10 -- times more expensive. There’s no excuse for that.
“So, re-importation done in a safe way would lower the price of drugs for seniors. That would be an easy way to lower the price of health care for folks.
“What would happen is, we wouldn’t even import the drugs. But once you allow for importation, the companies here would be forced to lower their prices to prevent that from occurring.”