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Roberts leaves Senate with warning about attacks on food supply

COVID-19 illustrates risks of contagion

Sen. Pat Roberts, a Kansas Republican who was chairman of the House and Senate Agriculture committees during a 40-year congressional career, will leave Capitol Hill worried about potential man-made threats to the U.S. food supply.

“When we get briefed, I don’t get the sense of urgency that I feel,” Roberts said about intelligence briefings he has received regarding threats to agriculture. “I understand that I’m biased. I’ve been there and I saw this stuff,” he said in an interview with CQ Roll Call. 

Roberts recalled a trip in the 1990s to the secret Russian city of Obolensk, where he saw “warehouses full of pathogens” designed to spread plant and animal diseases to cripple U.S. crop and livestock production. He was there as a Senate Armed Services member under a program to secure and destroy nuclear and biological weapons of mass destruction in the former Soviet Union.

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Known as the Nunn-Lugar-Domenici Program — for former Sens. Sam Nunn, D-Ga., Richard Lugar, R-Ind., and Pete Domenici, R-N.M. — it was established by Congress in a 1991 bill.

At his final hearing as Senate Agriculture chairman, Roberts said he does not know what happened to those warehouses. But he said Obolensk should be a reminder that other countries can develop their own bioweapons stockpiles.

“It isn’t as if the dog isn’t barking,” Roberts said at the Dec. 2 hearing. “We all wonder about these zoonotic diseases that happen from time to time, but if it’s intentional we have a whole different problem to work with.”

COVID-19 — which is thought to have originated in bats before making the leap to humans, causing the current pandemic — has underlined the danger of such diseases. Its greatest impact on the U.S. food supply came when meatpacking plants shut down to contain the virus’s spread among workers.

Roberts said during the hearing that his warning about bioweapons didn’t mean he was dismissing the damage that naturally occurring diseases, especially animal infections, can cause. Highly pathogenic avian flu in 2014 and 2015 resulted in 50 million chickens and turkeys in commercial flocks dying from the illness or being destroyed to control the spread of the disease.

“There will be something else that we’ll have to contend with,” he said, noting the toll of animal flu. 

But Roberts said the memory of Obolensk was among several reasons he pushed Kansas to compete for the National Bio and Agro-Defense Facility after the Homeland Security Department determined it should replace the Plum Island Animal Disease Center in New York because it could no longer meet biosecurity requirements.

Kansas State University, Roberts’ alma mater, won the competition, and the $1.25 billion animal disease research facility is scheduled to begin operation in two to three years.

Roberts, who was elected to the House in 1980 and to the Senate in 1996, will retire from Congress on Jan. 3. Rep. Roger Marshall, a Republican, will take his seat. Roberts, 84, leaves without the county-by-county goodbye tour he had hoped to make in 2020, a cancellation that resulted from his doctor’s warnings against travel and unnecessary exposure during the pandemic.

Roberts said he is proud of the 2018 farm bill he produced with ranking member Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., House Agriculture Chairman Collin C. Peterson, D-Minn., and ranking member K. Michael Conaway, R-Texas, despite initial sharp differences over provisions on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly known as food stamps.

The final bill passed the Senate on an 87-13 vote and the House on a 369-47 vote.

Stabenow will be the only one of the four still in Congress in 2021. Roberts and Conaway are retiring, and Peterson leaves after being defeated in his reelection bid on Nov. 3.

As tense as negotiations on the 2018 bill sometimes seemed, Roberts said his career included bigger challenges to agriculture. Republican leaders who controlled the House and Senate in 1995 wanted to reduce government spending and intervention in the market. Budget committees in both chambers proposed cuts to most federal programs, including agriculture.

The House Agriculture chairman at the time, Roberts said he proposed so-called freedom to farm legislation to achieve the required budget reductions. The legislation called for ending federal subsidies to farmers for idling land in an effort to avoid surpluses that drove down farm income and domestic prices. It proposed replacing them with seven years of declining payments for major crops that were not tied to market conditions or Agriculture Department limits on planting.

The proposal reflected the change in control of the House, where Republicans had broken the Democrats’ 40-year majority in the 1994 midterm elections. The House bill represented a break with Great Depression-era farm policies by ending the planting restrictions and establishing the declining payments to get farmers to rely more on market signals about what to plant.

Democrats argued that the $13 billion in proposed agriculture cuts over seven years were designed to help fund tax cuts for the wealthy. Opponents said the payments, because they weren’t means-tested, would be nothing more than welfare payments to large and wealthy farmers and ranchers.

Smaller farmers, critics said, could be put at a financial disadvantage.  At the very least, the change represented a leap into the unknown.

Opponents dismissed it as “freedom to fail.” Most farm groups and many lawmakers initially opposed the overhaul, and Roberts saw the bill defeated on a close committee vote. But that didn’t kill it. The transition payments returned in a revised version that ultimately was enacted as the 1996 farm bill.

Roberts joined the Senate the next year and watched the transition payments continue until the 2014 farm bill.

He credits the camaraderie of the Agriculture committees’ four leaders for making the 2018 bill a different experience, allowing them to deliver a five-year bill that President Donald Trump signed.

“I get along great with Stabenow. I think you could label her as a more liberal Democrat and you can label me as a pragmatic Republican, or whatever else you want to label me,” Roberts said.

Roberts and Stabenow even breached social distancing protocols for a hug at the end of the Nov. 17 event to unveil Roberts’ official portrait, which will go up in the Senate Agriculture Committee room. The pandemic kept those attending, Democrats and Republicans, masked and seated 6 feet apart, while others tuned in remotely. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, an Agriculture Committee member, came early and stayed until the end.

In his farewell speech to the Senate on Thursday, Roberts lamented what he sees as the loss of comity that once crossed party lines. 

“Here, in the Senate, only we can decide what our new normal is, and we ought to get to know one another. Let us once again become a body of respect, humility, cooperation, achievement and friendship. That can and should be our new normal,” Roberts said.

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