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Nethercutt’s Wheat Gambit More Proof All Politics Is Local

This is a story of war and of wheat. It’s also a lesson about national priorities, local interests, constituent services and, of course, politics. [IMGCAP(1)]

At the same time that members of the national media are blanketing the war in Iraq — bringing troop movements, firefights and the plight of Iraqi civilians into the nation’s collective living room — Washington Rep. George Nethercutt (R) is spending a lot of his time worrying about the Emerson Humanitarian Trust.

The trust, established seven years ago and named after the late Missouri Republican Rep. Bill Emerson, is an emergency commodity reserve administered by Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman. It was established to be available for humanitarian relief in developing nations.

Humanitarian aid is a pocketbook issue for Nethercutt’s farmers and grain elevator owners, as well as a perfect example that even in time of war, Tip O’Neill’s adage that “all politics is local” still holds.

The Congressman, a four-term incumbent from Eastern Washington, is trying to protect the interests of his constituents without sounding as if he is resisting President Bush’s promise of humanitarian aid for Iraq. He is also trying to position himself for 2004, when he is likely to give up his House seat to challenge Sen. Patty Murray (D). Nethercutt knows that his advocacy for wheat farmers and warehouse cooperatives while others are stressing humanitarian concerns could easily be interpreted as selfishness. But the Congressman has stood with his farmers before (even if that meant taking on President Bush), as when he led the fight to allow the sale of wheat to Cuba.

Nethercutt has been upset about the Department of Agriculture’s handling of the Emerson Trust for months, going back to the summer of 2002, when American wheat from the trust flowed to drought-stricken Africa.

In July, with letters to Veneman and the Agriculture Department’s Office of Inspector General, the Congressman called for an investigation of the department’s release of Northwest wheat from particular warehouses and grain elevators, which he said was disproportionately hurting small operators.

Grain elevators storing Emerson Trust wheat receive storage fees from the government, so when the wheat is distributed by Agriculture, those fees disappear. That creates something of an irony: Since local granaries benefit from receiving the storage fees, it’s in their financial interest to oppose the release of the wheat, regardless of the need.

The Congressman complained that wheat from small, relatively inexpensive storage facilities was distributed by the department, while wheat in facilities that charge higher storage fees — and are owned by large agribusinesses — remained untouched. That wouldn’t benefit Nethercutt’s voters or American taxpayers.

Some conservative critics of the current system point out that the Emerson Trust has been allowed to hold funds as well as commodities since 1998, and that it would be cheaper for the federal government to keep cash to buy wheat on the open market rather than to pay storage fees to grain elevators to hold it. They see Nethercutt as defending a system that benefits district grain elevator owners but not most taxpayers.

More recently, Nethercutt has begun to complain about Agriculture’s sale of Emerson Trust wheat on the open market to raise cash to buy rice, corn and sorghum for Iraq. He argues that the release is forcing down the price of the Northwest’s soft white wheat.

Late last month, the Congressman fired off a blistering note to Veneman, complaining that while the trust was established “for urgent humanitarian relief” and “unanticipated food needs,” the war “had been planned for months,” and “food aid to the citizens of Iraq … should have been included as an expense of the war.”

Instead of selling wheat to raise funds to purchase other commodities, Nethercutt wants the department to purchase the other commodities with funds earmarked by Congress for that purpose.

The Department of Agriculture doesn’t agree with Nethercutt’s analysis. It argues that competition, not the trust, is putting downward pressure on grain prices. And to some, borrowing money while sitting on millions of dollars of wheat that could be used to pay for other commodities at a time of budget deficits isn’t a prudent way to handle government finances.

So far, it looks as if the Congressman is getting his way. Both the House and Senate supplemental appropriations bills include money for Agriculture to buy rice, corn and sorghum on the open market and to prohibit the department from selling the warehoused wheat to buy other commodities. And that means Nethercutt’s constituents will continue to collect their storage fees and will have another reason to be grateful to him.

They’ll be able to show that gratitude if, as expected, Rep. Jennifer Dunn (R) passes on the Senate race and Nethercutt announces his candidacy. He will need solid support from the rural voters of Central and Eastern Washington if he is going to have any chance of defeating Murray, since he is largely unknown in the expensive, voter-rich Seattle-Tacoma media market, which reaches three-quarters of state voters.

While Bush is focused almost entirely on the war in Iraq, Members of Congress are keeping one eye on the folks back home. That’s particularly true if wartime concerns affect constituents, and if those Members, like Nethercutt, can’t take their next election for granted.

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