CAMPAIGN 2012:

Surrogate debate offers peek into candidates' positions on farm issues

Speaking on behalf of Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney, Sen. Mike Johanns (R-Neb.) yesterday blasted the Obama administration for environmental regulations he said were stifling farmers and ranchers.

The comments came during a surrogate debate between Johanns and former Iowa Agriculture Secretary Patty Judge, who spoke on behalf of the Obama campaign.

The debate held last night in Iowa provided a rare look at where the candidates stand on agricultural issues -- issues that loom large given the farm bill's expiration at the end of this month (E&ENews PM, Sept. 12).

Johanns warned that if President Obama were re-elected, the agricultural community would have to contend with several other regulations, including a "farm dust" rule that EPA has maintained does not exist. Johanns also criticized Obama for not including any funding in his budget for eight farm energy programs that have helped build the domestic biofuels industry.

"I don't use this terminology lightly, but he [Obama] has been anti-agriculture," said Johanns, a former secretary of Agriculture under the Bush administration.

Judge shot back against criticism of Obama's stance on agricultural issues, including EPA rules.

"First of all, I don't believe there are happy bureaucrats that ... are out there with fistfuls of regulations just waiting for the election so that they can implement them," she said. "And second of all, let's put the farm dust issue to rest right now. There are no pending regulations by EPA to regulate farm dust, period. The end."

Judge and Johanns found little to agree on overall in the debate, which lasted an hour and a half. The drought that caused crops to whither over the summer and spurred the earliest corn harvest in 25 years figured high in the speech.

Judge praised the Obama administration's actions during the drought, which included extending lines of credit to suffering farmers and opening up conservation lands to emergency grazing. She also said the drought highlighted how farmers are relying on extra income from renewable fuel projects and that Obama would continue "growing fuel in the Midwest" by supporting biofuels.

Romney and his running mate, Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), on the other hand, believe that Congress should finish a short-term drought measure that the House passed before members left for a five-week August recess, Johanns said. The drought bill was seen as a means of punting work on a much larger, five-year farm bill until after the recess.

Romney would urge the Senate to take up the measure, Johanns said; so far, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) has refused to take up the bill.

"Paul Ryan voted for this plan on the House side. Mitt Romney has endorsed this plan," Johanns said. "Let's get that funding in place. We know we've got crop insurance in place. Let's go to work on the farm bill. Let's take the politics out of it. Let's get good policy. And we can get a farm bill."

Judge, though, blamed Ryan and other Republican House leaders for holding up work on the larger farm bill, which would provide the same drought measures as well as fund a host of agricultural, conservation, energy and nutrition programs.

"Even after the 2012 farm bill passed the Senate with bipartisan support, Republicans in the House of Representatives, including Paul Ryan, continue to block the passage, and Mitt Romney remains silent," Judge said.

She said Obama would oppose a one-year extension to the bill, which is becoming more and more likely as Congress runs down to the wire on passing a new farm bill before the old one expires on Sept. 30.

Johanns, on the other hand, did not say Romney would not support a one-year extension and instead noted that reconciling the current House and Senate farm bills in a conference committee would be "tough."

Romney "has said very, very clearly, 'Let's get a farm bill done, but let's get it right,'" Johanns said.

Despite yesterday's debate, neither presidential candidate has made agriculture a priority in campaigning. In her closing statement, Judge criticized Romney for not making much of the issue.

"He hasn't told us much about his position on the farm bill. I've learned more tonight from Senator Johanns than I have heard from Mitt Romney about it," Judge said. "Could that be because this candidate really doesn't have much knowledge about the issue?"