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DeLauro Unlikely Leader of Agriculture Subcommittee

After winning a coveted seat on the House Appropriations Committee in 1993, Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.) turned to friend and former boss Sen. Chris Dodd (D-Conn.) for some career advice.

Her successful fight against ovarian cancer had already persuaded her to seek a spot on the subcommittee that oversees the Department of Health and Human Services, but she wanted Dodd’s counsel on which other subcommittee assignments to pursue.

“He said, obviously you want to go where your interests lie, but also think about places where not everybody is like you, you know, where you represent a different part of the country and different set of interests and have a different perspective,— DeLauro recalled in a phone interview last week.

Taking Dodd’s words to heart, she requested a seat on the Subcommittee on Agriculture, Rural Development and Food and Drug Administration — which she was granted, along with the Labor-HHS spot.

It turned out to be “an extraordinarily great piece of advice,— said DeLauro, now in her second term as chairwoman of the Agriculture-FDA subcommittee. The panel’s diverse portfolio, which includes drug safety efforts at the FDA and food inspection and nutrition programs at the Department of Agriculture, dovetails nicely with her interest in public health issues.

But it’s also made DeLauro — an unabashed liberal from the urban Northeast with a penchant for designer eyeglasses and silky scarves — a force to be reckoned with in an area long dominated by powerful farm lobbies and rural lawmakers from the South and Midwest.

“Was there skepticism around my being chair of this subcommittee?— she asks. “Certainly there was. But I made it my business to reach out to talk to my colleagues on both sides of the aisle.—

DeLauro rolled up her sleeves and dug into the issues after becoming ranking member of the subcommittee in 2005 and chairwoman two years later when Democrats took back the House.

She’s toured Kansas wheat fields with Rep. Jerry Moran (R), Texas slaughterhouses with Rep. Randy Neugebauer (R) and Iowa feedlots with Rep. Tom Latham (R). DeLauro led a bipartisan delegation to Cuba in 2007 to explore agricultural trade opportunities and last year helped secure major funding increases for nutrition and conservation programs as a farm bill conferee.

In addition, DeLauro has thrown herself headfirst into nonfarming matters under the subcommittee’s jurisdiction, including FDA regulation of medical devices and drugs, rural broadband and domestic and international food aid programs. “It’s an extraordinary subcommittee,— she said. “I love it. I love the range of issues.—

Consumer advocates are similarly thrilled to have an ally overseeing essential food and medical regulators. “It’s been a long time in coming for it to return to its key focus on protecting consumer safety,— said Lori Wallach, director of Public Citizen’s Global Trade Watch division.

But a key focus for DeLauro remains food safety, a signature issue that she’s pressed throughout her Congressional career. “We’re talking about issues here that are not like transportation or parks, or so forth,— she said. “These are life and death issues.—

The food safety bill that passed the House in July includes several DeLauro-backed provisions tightening FDA inspection requirements, new industry reporting requirements, as well as country-of-origin-labeling rules. The Senate may take up a companion food safety bill later this year if and when it finishes health care reform.

Absent from the House measure, however, is DeLauro’s plan to split the FDA into two agencies — one to oversee food safety and the other to regulate drugs. It’s a fight she lost, but one she’s not giving up. “That wasn’t going to happen so I worked toward trying to structure the toughest and most stringent regulation as it has to do with food safety,— she said.

DeLauro also bears the perhaps singular distinction of single-handedly igniting a trade war with China. The dispute has been festering since 2006, when as ranking member of the subcommittee, she inserted language in the annual Agriculture, rural development and Food and Drug Administration spending bill to block a Bush administration rule that would have allowed chicken processed in China to be imported into the United States.

Critics say the rule was rushed through by the Bush White House to placate China, and DeLauro in July held a hearing on USDA documents that she said revealed “disturbing conditions— at inspected Chinese facilities that would have processed chicken for U.S. markets.

“If you read it, you’re going to become a vegan,— one consumer advocate said recently of the USDA report.

Opponents of the ban fear an escalating trade war, noting that China receives nearly three-quarters of its own chicken imports from the United States. A coalition of powerful livestock and poultry groups is furiously pressing to lift the ban, which China is challenging at the World Trade Organization.

The issue may come to a head this month when House and Senate conferees are expected to reconcile their competing versions of the spending bill. The House measure continues the ban, which the Senate version conditionally lifts if the USDA steps up inspection of Chinese plants.

DeLauro acknowledged she’s facing intense pressure over the ban but said public safety remains her overarching concern in this and all subcommittee matters.

“The weight of the information is such that we cannot close our eyes to what are the potential dangers to public health,— she said of the USDA documents that the Bush administration used to justify its proposal. “So whatever the pressure is and wherever it comes from, I’m willing to state my case. I can win or I can lose, but I’m not going to back down.—

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