Ed Schafer As Ag Secretary

Ed Schafer’s ascendency as an agricultural secretary nominee came as a surprise to me. My friend, Chuck Abbott, of Reutters, broke the news to me when he called to ask me what I thought about Schafer.

Here’s what I told him. Gov. Schafer is a stalwart Republican, but not an extremist. He was an affable governor who made few missteps and knew how to handle politics within his party, as well as work with Democrats, when necessary. I wouldn’t expect Gov. Schafer to carry on a conversation on any aspect of agricultural policy in any detail. I never did.

Schafer is not my idea of an agricultural insider. Certainly, he led an agricultural state, but his efforts in economic development didn’t focus so much on agriculture. His own success in business was initally bolstered by his adventures in tilapia fish farming, which later went bust.

Gov. Schafer’s appointment is mostly being applauded by agricultural intelligencia today. Sen. Kent Conrad, D-N.D., a member of the Senate Agriculture Committee and the chairman of the Senate Budget Committee (Schafer’s ex-brother-in-law), and Rep. Collin Peterson, D-Minn., chairman of the House Agriculture Committee, are among those offering words of acceptance. Schafer knows this region, they say, and they hope he’ll be in tune with their interest in a permanent disaster provision in the 2007 Farm Bill.

My guess is that Schafer won’t be in tune with the permanent disaster provision. I think President George Bush wants this (note Mike Johanns’ objections to it) and Schafer will be pressed into service to tow the line. Schafer — like Bob Bergland, a former U.S. agriculture secretary from this region — will work for the president. Regional advantages from a permanent disaster package will have to be overlooked for the administration’s goal of a larger, national good.

Regardless of that, Schafer will have some kind of role in the acceptance into law of a farm bill which is largely already written by the likes of Peterson and Conrad. By the time the bill is passed by Congress, it will nearly be presidential election season. It has a very good good chance of being signed by a president who is unpopular — even in his rural ("red") states — and will need to show his empathy by passing a "good" farm bill.

Schafer will do well on the stump. He’s very personable and can deliver a speech. I don’t expect him to stray much from the written word on agricultural policy questions. By the time he learns the ropes at the Department of Agriculture, it’ll be time to leave.