Kansas senator’s bipartisanship may cost him support
photo by: Associated Press
WASHINGTON — As Kansas Republican Sen. Pat Roberts decides whether to seek another term, observers say his style of traditional bipartisan consensus building might now be a liability in a polarized political world.
That style was on display as Roberts, 82, maneuvered the 2018 farm bill through Congress with support from both parties — a move ultimately embraced by President Donald Trump as a rare bipartisan success.
But McClatchy Newspapers reports that to some GOP critics, Roberts’ work across the aisle resulted in what they call a deeply flawed and costly farm bill that represents a betrayal of conservative values.
“It’s a slap in the face to Ronald Reagan,” said Robert Rector, senior research fellow at the Heritage Foundation. “It’s a victory for a massive welfare state without work requirements and an out-of-control budget.”
Roberts, chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee, is up for re-election in 2020 and has said he is consulting with family and supporters about whether to seek another term.
No one has yet announced a primary challenge against Roberts, but conservative activists see him as vulnerable from the right. He narrowly survived a primary against tea party candidate Milton Wolf in 2014. Republicans including outgoing GOP Gov. Jeff Colyer and U.S. Rep. Roger Marshall, who represents western Kansas, are eyeing a race in anticipation that Roberts might not run.
Roberts, who began his Washington career as a congressional aide in 1967, thinks the legislative process should be collaborative and collegial. But former Kansas Democratic Rep. Dan Glickman said incentives in today’s political system are far less geared toward working things out in a bipartisan way than they once were.
“We’re in a polarized world right now. You’re either in one end zone or the other end zone,” said Glickman, also a former U.S. agriculture secretary. “Being at the 50-yard line or even the 40-yard line is not as appreciated as it used to be. That’s just the reality.”
The farm bill Roberts shepherded angered conservatives such as Andrew Roth, vice president of government affairs for Club for Growth, a group that advocates smaller government. Those conservatives wanted a farm bill to rein in taxpayer-funded subsidies for farmers and impose new work requirements on older people and parents enrolled in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, once known as food stamps.
The final farm bill omitted the work requirements and expanded eligibility for subsidies.
Roth said Roberts needs to explain why he backed a bill that will cost almost a trillion dollars over a decade.
“It creates and empowers dependence on the government,” Roth said. “He’ll need to explain to conservative voters why he thinks that’s a good idea.”
Roberts knew he would need Democratic support to pass a farm bill, and he wanted a bill that would pass.
“Farmers need certainty and predictability,” Roberts said. “I had one old boy out west who said, ‘Pat, I don’t care what you do to me as long as you let me know.'”
He knew Democrats would vote as a bloc behind Sen. Debbie Stabenow, of Michigan, the top Democrat on the committee, so he built on the friendship he’d made with her over several years.
“It goes to the question of, ‘Do you want to govern?'” Stabenow said. “Do you want to solve problems and get things done? Clearly, Sen. Roberts was committed.”
Their personal relationship and the synergy between their staffs was reminiscent of a bygone era in Congress, when chairs and the top minority members worked closely as teams.
“We trusted one another,” Roberts said.
Agriculture groups praised Roberts’ efforts.
“All I can say is Pat Roberts got a five year farm bill done when not much else is getting done on a bipartisan basis,” said Randy Russell, a veteran lobbyist who represents several agriculture groups.
If Roberts runs again, his future might rest on whether his old-school approach to making policy through compromise has become a liability in the age of winner-take-all politics.
“I hope we’re not an endangered species,” Roberts said of his breed of pragmatic lawmaker.