WASHINGTON — The Senate Agriculture Committee lacks a Nebraskan for the first time in nearly half a century, even as the panel prepares to kick off hearings on a new farm bill.
Sen. Ben Sasse, R-Neb., announced Tuesday that he will leave his seat on the panel in the new Congress and is also relinquishing his spot on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs.
Instead, the freshman senator has secured positions on the Armed Services and Judiciary Committees, and he’s keeping his seat on the Banking Committee.
In an interview with The World-Herald, Sasse said he will be just as active in the farm bill process regardless of his committee assignments and that his new ones position him well for the 115th Congress.
“This allows us to participate in two of the three biggest debates at the committee level in the next 18 to 24 months,” Sasse said.
That includes the Judiciary Committee’s handling of Supreme Court vacancies and the Armed Services Committee’s work on developing a national security strategy that addresses Islamic jihad and cyberwarfare, he said.
The third issue he referred to was repealing and replacing the Affordable Care Act, which he said is likely to be handled in the coveted Finance Committee — difficult for a relatively junior senator to join.
Sasse’s moves mean that he won’t be on the Agriculture Committee as it begins debate on what could be a highly contentious farm bill.
Nutrition assistance programs, commonly referred to as food stamps, always produce fireworks. In addition, some fiscally conservative groups have signaled that they also are gunning for the fundamental underpinnings of the farm safety net.
That could put Sasse in a tough situation. He’s a farm-state senator, but he also is a favorite of groups like the Heritage Foundation that could oppose the farm bill.
Committee Chairman Pat Roberts, R-Kan., has indicated that the panel will first take up President-elect Donald Trump’s nominees and then dive straight into the farm bill.
“We have immediate problems to address,” Roberts said in a statement. “We will listen to producers, Main Street and others concerned with the current economic climate in farm country. We have immediate supply and demand challenges. We need to hear from those on the ground what works in the current farm bill and what can be adjusted.”
It’s a striking change to have no Cornhusker representation on the Agriculture Committee. Its membership has included at least one Nebraska senator since Sen. Carl Curtis joined in 1969. For a time, in fact, both Nebraska senators — Democrat Ben Nelson and Republican Mike Johanns — served on the committee together.
“Gosh,” said John Hansen, president of the Nebraska Farmers Union, when he learned of Sasse’s move. “That is disappointing. We lost Ashford to the election, and now Sasse. I don’t remember when Nebraska had neither a House or Senate member on the Ag Committee.”
Former Rep. Brad Ashford, D-Neb., just lost his re-election bid and was the only Nebraskan on the House Agriculture Committee. It remains to be seen whether his GOP successor, Rep. Don Bacon, will get a spot on the House panel.
After his election in 2014, Sasse touted his position on the Senate committee, particularly his role as head of the subcommittee on livestock, marketing and agriculture security.
“It is a tremendous honor to serve as the chairman of this important subcommittee,” Sasse said at the time.
And the position was hailed by groups such as the Nebraska Farm Bureau Federation and the Nebraska Cattlemen as a way for him to look out for Nebraska producers’ interests.
Still, Steve Nelson, president of the Nebraska Farm Bureau Federation, on Tuesday downplayed the impact of Sasse leaving the committee, saying there are lots of areas outside that particular panel where lawmakers work on issues important to farm country.
“It’s certainly a good thing when you have your senators and representatives on ag committees,” Nelson said. “It’s not a bad thing when they’re not, either, because there’s lots of other ways that they can serve.”
Nelson’s organization is already hashing out its priorities for the farm bill, including maintaining safety net programs such as a robust crop insurance system.
Sasse’s moves are also interesting given that Sen. Deb Fischer, R-Neb., already is a senior member of the Armed Services Committee. She also will remain on the Commerce Committee and Environment and Public Works Committee.
Sasse had to get a special waiver to serve on a committee with his home-state colleague.
He defended that decision, saying it’s a uniquely powerful committee because it crafts a sweeping defense authorization bill every year. He said cyberwarfare will receive much-needed focus in the new Congress.
As for the Judiciary Committee, Sasse said that he hears from Nebraskans all the time about the Supreme Court and that nobody understands the burden of executive overreach more than farmers and ranchers. He suggested that his work on Judiciary will include putting people on the bench who will rein in agencies such as the Environmental Protection Agency.
He said his Banking assignment will include work on pushing back regulations such as those related to the Dodd-Frank law and the federal Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.
As for the oversight that he was doing on the Governmental Affairs Committee, Sasse said he was confident that the Senate will continue efforts to push back on executive powers.
“I believe there will be lots and lots of opportunities for bipartisan oversight of the executive branch,” Sasse said.