Sen. Pat Roberts on 40-year career: "I want justice" for farmers

Grace Connatser
Wisconsin State Farmer
Kansas Sen. Pat Roberts talks about the farm bill during a luncheon at Samy's Spirits and Steakhouse. Roberts is closing out his career of representing Kansas in Congress. [BRAD NADING/GARDEN CITY TELEGRAM]

Senator Pat Roberts, R-Kansas, retired from his post as Senate Ag Committee chairman Jan. 3 to go into retirement. After a storied 40-year career protecting farmers with the 1996 and 2018 farm bills, he was a guest on the National Milk Producers Federation's podcast "Dairy Defined."

Roberts said that these are "not the worst of times," despite many farmers thinking it. He said dairy is always there no matter what; whether he's getting along with his fellow Democratic committee members or not, and said he's skilled at getting the 60 votes needed for his legislation to pass. He managed to pass the 2018 Farm Bill with 87 votes, just short of his goal of 90.

"I was talking to some House Republicans, who from an ideological standpoint are just opposed to farm bills," Roberts said. "I said, 'Come on guys, you can at least give me two votes.' I think Mitch McConnell was looking at me and said, 'My Lord, you have 87 votes. What do you want?' And I said I want justice."

Roberts also said the time after the 1996 Freedom to Farm Act was passed was difficult to manage because the bill flipped many prior ag policies on their heads, and it was already difficult to negotiate for a bigger piece of the Congressional budget. He said former Rep. John Kasich, the current governor of Ohio who at the time was the chairman of the House Budget Committee, at first offered him $6 billion – a third of the asking price.

"John Kasich was the budget guy. He wanted to give us $6 billion – the average cost there during that time was about $18 billion. I said you know we can't run a farm bill with that. He turned it around and finally gave us $9 billion," Roberts said. "I was going back repeatedly (to farmers) saying we're having a little bit of trouble here with the amount of money that we have available to us because of the budget. Well, a lot of people said just increase the budget."

The term "freedom to farm," Roberts said, was actually taken from a farmer constituent who said he was tired of many things, including loan rates and government regulation, saying he just wanted the freedom to farm. Roberts said it was important that he and other farmer advocates never give up.

In 1967, Roberts was working in Arizona at a weekly newspaper and morning news program after he got out of the Marines when he got a call from Sen. Frank Carlson, who also had a political career spanning 40 years as US Representative, governor and Senator for Kansas. Carlson asked him to be his chief of staff as his former chief of staff left to join the Interstate Commerce Commission appointed by President Lyndon B. Johnson. 

"Well gosh, that's something you can't turn down. So I went back to Washington and I worked for him for two years. Twenty-four elections, you only lose one ... so I'm very proud of that record," Roberts said. "If there was a name on the ballot I'm counting that I never dreamed I would (see) – I thought I'd be there two years and I'd go back to Arizona or Kansas."

Roberts also met his wife, Frankie Roberts, while working for Carlson in Washington, as she was working for former Sen. Strom Thurmond. Not long after that, Roberts began working for Rep. Keith Sebelius, who represented Kansas' first Congressional district. Roberts said that upon Sebelius retiring, he decided to run for his office, serving in that role between 1981 and 1997.

"I've had a wonderful career," Roberts said. "There are no self-made men or women in public office. It's your friends who make you what you are."

Roberts was chair of the House Ag Committee until he decided to run for the Senate in 1996. After being elected, he then served as chair of the Senate Ethics, Intelligence and Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry committees.

It's unclear who is set to replace Roberts as chair on the Senate committee, though it is likely to be current ranking member Debbie Stabenow, D-Michigan, who was most recently chair of the committee between 2011 and 2015. Stabenow was a primary author of the 2014 Farm Bill.

"I am very confident that the people who will be taking my place – they have a lot of experience. They're good folks," Roberts said. "I think the same attempt, at least with regards to making it bipartisan, will continue, and you just have to work as hard as you possibly can."

Roberts said he has worries about the incoming Biden administration's policy on climate change and federal environmental regulation, but he believes the people currently serving on the Senate committee will do what's best for farmers – and he "intends to have his finger in the pie somewhere." He said his number one concern is still crop insurance for farmers across the nation.

He also shared stories of his relationship with President Trump. Roberts said the first thing he said to the president when he was asked to visit the Oval Office was "save crop insurance." But when he got a call about it later, Trump had forgotten his name, instead calling him "farm guy." That nickname, he said, stuck for awhile after that.

"I got in to see the president and he asked what he could do for me, and I said, 'Save crop insurance – save it, improve it, don't cut it.' And he said alright," Roberts said. "I did want to at least try to educate the president to the importance of the crop insurance program. And then, the good thing was he called me farm guy for the next few years."