With a political system that remains broken, building coalitions is more important than ever for agriculture and oil and gas to receive fair treatment, says Charlie Stenholm, former U.S. Congressman and ranking member of the House Committee on Agriculture.
Stenholm, who now works with OFW Law as an educator for agriculture and the oil and gas industry in Washington, was keynote speaker for the 27th annual Texas Plant Protection Association Conference held Dec. 8 and 9 in Bryan, Texas. He says educator sounds better than — he drops his voice to a whisper — lobbyist.
He says he is optimistic that the U.S. political system will be fixed, but wonders if legislators in the current setting can “sit down and agree on anything.” Legislators have lost the ability to consider other opinions, he says.
Stenholm teaches a weekly class at Tarleton State University, and says he informs his students that he will never grade them down for their opinions, whether or not he agrees with them. “You may be right,” he tells them. Expressing ideas, he says, is how agricultural interests and the American public will fix the failing political system.
A MINORITY SECTOR
“Agriculture is a minority sector,” he says. “Accept that. But if you have an idea, you have to reach out.” When he was a Democrat in Congress and had an idea he thought worth pursuing, he says, “I looked for a Republican to help move it along.”
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He says he was pleased that new Speaker of the House Paul Ryan pledged that the House would go back to “regular order” to deal with legislative issues. “Paul Ryan is the right man, at the right time, for the job of speaker.”
Regular order means taking the best ideas, putting them in bill form, moving them through committees, markups, improvements, and finally, a vote. “We still operate on majority rule, with strong protection of minority rights,” Stenholm says. “But when the minority is running the show, we have problems.”
Agricultural interests need to build coalitions, he says. “I’ve been trying to keep oil and gas and agriculture linked. It’s been hard to do, even though the two industries share common interests. We can’t produce food, feed, fertilizer, and fuel without oil and gas. And we will not change that system anytime soon. But we can’t produce oil and gas without food, feed, fertilizer and fuel.”
Coalitions would bring the industries together to take on issues such as endangered species, Stenholm says. “We have a lot of different opinions, and we know of 15 organizations in Texas that make life difficult for oil and gas.”
REGULATIONS CAN HELP
Regulations, he says, are necessary when they are needed, and when they do what they are supposed to do. He questions why Texas has no baseline water quality standard. “We need a baseline to determine if water quality is changing.”
Soil is another key issue, especially with climate change being linked to carbon dioxide and methane sent into the atmosphere from burning fossil fuels, especially coal. “Doesn’t the soil capture carbon dioxide? We need more research to understand how we can use that. We also need the political will to provide the wherewithal to do the research.”
Industry needs to begin research earlier in the game, Stenholm says, in order to make certain that regulations are necessary. “We’ve tried to make changes in the Endangered Species Act, and we’re looking at what kind of research we need to do before a species is put on the endangered list. We need to do that research earlier in the process.”
Coalitions of organizations, such as the Natural Resource Conservation Service and Fish and Wildlife Service, could improve resource management, he says. “They should put their ideas together and find solutions.”
The U.S. political system has been souring for decades, “ever since Watergate,” Stenholm says. “But it works when we participate in it.”
He encouraged the agriculture industry to take good ideas to House Agriculture Committee Chairman Mike Conaway, R-Texas, calling him “the right man for the job. Encourage him to consider your ideas.”
He also weighed in on the controversial illegal alien solution proposed by presidential candidate Donald Trump. “If we round up and deport up 11 million undocumented workers, we can watch food production disappear,” Stenholm says, noting that a large percentage of agricultural workers are undocumented.
He says it’s time for Congress to work together to solve complex problems, such as an $18 trillion debt. “You can’t find one thing ever passed by Democrats only or Republicans only that was good for the country.”