Freshman holds a spot on House Agriculture Committee

By MITCH LIES

Capital Press

SALEM -- Small farmer, veterinarian and politician.

Those parts had long sunk in for U.S. Rep. Kurt Schrader, D-Ore.

The first-term congressman was still getting used to being a U.S. representative, though, when he found himself with five others in the office of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., negotiating the final details of the House's Energy Independence Act of 2009.

"I figured, based on what I'd heard about Congress, you had to be there 20 years before you had a chance to do anything," Schrader said.

"So one man in this country can make a difference," he said. "That was cool. It was kind of like the old Jimmy Stewart thing. That was a pleasant surprise."

The enormity of what he has walked into has struck Schrader several times in recent months.

Assigned to the House Agriculture Committee, Schrader in his first few months in Congress has been involved in negotiations over commodity trading, food safety and the energy bill.

"Two weeks into the committee, (Chairman) Collin Peterson, (D-Minn.), announces he's going to pass out his commodity tradings act to fix the derivatives and commodity default swap speculation market," Schrader said.

"I figured, this will be interesting. We'll have a chance to chew on this and work through things. Then he says, 'By the way, we're not only going to talk about it: In another two weeks we're going to pass the thing out to committee.

"The next thing I know, we're in the middle of the energy independence bill, which is coming down the pike like gangbusters. And the chairman and, frankly, the ranking members and most of us have some skepticism about how it will affect agriculture and forestry and rural America in particular.

"All of a sudden we're in the spotlight," Schrader said.

That apparent cushy position -- post farm bill -- in the agriculture committee turned into a high-profile position for the freshman congressman from Oregon.

"It was surprising to me based on what I had been led to believe that agriculture never does anything except the farm bill every four years. But these are the kinds of things I signed up to do," said Schrader, who served from 1997 to 2008 in the Oregon Legislature.

"We did some stuff that is moderately beneficial," he said in regard to the energy bill, "stopped some bad stuff, and put a voice for rural America in front of the Democratic party and, frankly, in front of the nation."

Among the "moderately beneficial" stuff, Schrader was part of an effort to shift regulatory authority for carbon offset programs in the energy act from the Environmental Protection Agency, where it originally was proposed, to the USDA.

The bill cleared the House in recent weeks -- with the USDA administering carbon offsets -- and now is in the Senate.

"When you're figuring out these allowances, it won't be under EPA math or EPA bias. It will be done by USDA," Schrader said. "They're better equipped to do it. They have the knowledge base. They understand farming. They understand rural America. That was a huge victory."

Schrader, who backed alternative energy bills while in the Oregon Senate, also backed the energy independence bill -- despite an anticipated increase in energy costs to Americans.

One reason, he said, is because those increased costs were scaled back.

"We changed a bill that had lofty goals and was going to sell all these offsets and build all these government programs. We changed that into something I campaigned on, which was an orderly transition from the fossil fuel era of Venezuela dependence to an American independent energy strategy over the next four years," he said.

"The Congressional Budget Office said at the end of the day, it in itself, will only be responsible for $175 in additional costs to Americans' electric bills 10 years from now," Schrader said. "So that's not bad."

Schrader believes the bill ultimately will benefit farmers, ranchers and foresters.

"This will be a profit center," he said. "There are all sorts of opportunities. And since USDA controls how this is set up, I think it will be done in a thoughtful and rural-friendly way that we'll make money off of this darn thing."

Schrader in his short time in Washington, D.C., also has started a healthy forest caucus to promote timber production in a manner that preserves forest health.

Schrader is working with Rep. Greg Walden, R-Ore., on developing healthy forest policy that "puts people to work in the woods by doing the right thing for the environment while, at the same time, doing the right thing for the economy.

"I was concerned about our timber economy, our rural economy. I happen to believe that rural America will not come back until we can cut a few more trees in the forest," he said.

Schrader was elected to Congress in November 2008. He entered the race for Oregon's Fifth District representative after Democrat Darlene Hooley, who represented the district for six terms, announced she would not seek re-election.

Staff writer Mitch Lies is based in Salem. E-mail: mlies@capitalpress.com.

 

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