By Don Davis
St. Paul Capitol Bureau
ST. PAUL - Glen Menze picks at Collin Peterson's biggest accomplishment - herding the 2008 farm bill to passage, and repassage over a presidential veto.
Menze, a Republican trying for the second time to unseat western Minnesota's Democratic congressman, complained that the farm bill contains too much pork, but said it did not help pork and other livestock producers.
"It really picked winners and losers," Menze said. "If you are in livestock, you not only didn't gain anything - there wasn't really anything in there for hog and beef - but you found out that the disaster program, for example, is going to require a lot more money."
Veteran lawmaker Peterson, finishing his second year as chairman of the House Agriculture Committee, said the farm bill was a good compromise.
"There wasn't any pork in there," he said. "We had no earmarks in the farm bill that passed the House."
However, senators insisted on some earmarks - funding for specific programs.
"It was the price I had to pay to get the bill passed," Peterson said. "That is just how the Senate operates. I fought it as long as I could."
Such relatively minor disputes illustrate the 7th Congressional District race, where Menze and Peterson compete to represent a large chunk of western Minnesota from the Canadian border south almost to Iowa. The two are seeking a job paying $169,300 annually.
Peterson is known as one of the House's most conservative Democrats - and 13 years ago helped form the Blue Dog coalition of conservative and moderate Democrats.
Menze, a former farmer and like Peterson an accountant, is not as strict a conservative as Republicans often put up to fight Peterson, but on most issues he is to Peterson's right.
The federal government should offer disaster insurance to farmers, Menze said, instead of the current subsidies farmers receive. At some point, he added, private insurance companies should take over the program.
Farmers could take out the type of insurance they want - flood, tornado, pest, etc. - under the Menze plan.
"In a farm bill, what we really should be doing, is providing affordable risk-management tools," Menze said.
Menze's goal is to get rid of subsidies, although he did not say that was possible immediately.
"I am interested in the parts of the ag bill that we use as a carrot that we use people to do the environmentally right things to do on their property," he gave as an example of government's role.
Peterson said southern congressmen prevented as big a change in farm policy as he would have liked.
"Farm bills are evolutionary, not revolutionary," he said.
A new voluntary program is the biggest advancement in the new farm bill, Peterson said. It would allow farmers to enroll in the program that guarantees crop revenue equaling 90 percent of that obtained the previous two years.
While he complained about Peterson's farm bill, Menze also paid the incumbent a compliment. "On ag issues, he is effective."
The two western Minnesota candidates came close to agreeing on the financial institution bailout bill. Peterson voted against both versions debated in the House, and still opposes it. Menze said he might have voted for the measure, but would have much preferred to see private money spent to rescue troubled banks.
"It is almost like saying things are so bad that only the government can solve this problem," Menze said. "When it comes to financial matters, I know there is private money out there that can solve these problems. ... It is not a real easy choice on this one. If they are going to do it, I hope they are going to do it right."
In an editorial page column Peterson wrote after the second bailout vote, he said the bill was "very unlikely to solve the actual problem."
Spending in the bill is not funded, he said, so just makes the country's national debt larger.
"The bailout bill will probably add billions more, though the president and others say lots of it 'will be paid back.'" Peterson said. "I certainly hope so, but I'm not optimistic about it."
On other issues:
Peterson said that on energy issues, he works with chairmen of committees with jurisdiction on the subject so he can influence funding more ethanol research. Grocery organizations, livestock groups and others opposed to ethanol subsidies "have tried to gin up opposition, but they are not making progress," he said.
Menze calls for tax cuts and reducing the number of federal mandates on small businesses.
Disputes over the Iraq war seem to be resolving themselves, Peterson said. Just about 50 representatives, out of 435, are calling for leaving Iraq immediately, "but they don't have the influence they used to have," the congressman said.
"We need to know who is an American," Menze said, seeking federal laws that make stopping illegal immigration a priority.
The next foreign affairs concern, Peterson said, is Afghanistan, which "is flaring up to be the big issue." There appears to be congressional agreement to send more troops there, he added.
Even if the recently enacted bailout law helps the economy now, Medicare will pay out more than it takes in by 2012 and Social Security will face a similar fate five years later, Menze said, hitting the economy hard. Those potential events need immediate action to ensure those two federal programs are reformed, he said.
Peterson said his western Minnesota district is in better economic shape, and in less need of federal help, than many in the country. "We didn't run the price of houses up way beyond what they should have been," he said. "Farmers have money. We are doing pretty well."
Menze seeks more oil refineries in the Midwest and, like most Republicans, wants to see more off-shore oil drilling. But overall, he said, he wants the market, not government, to decide where the energy industry goes.
One of Peterson's rural goals is to find a way to get more Internet broadband capability. And he said he is working with Transportation Committee Chairman Jim Oberstar of Minnesota to make sure rural Minnesota gets transportation and other infrastructure funds it needs.
One of Menze's complaints is "Washington has gone away from being statesmen. It has become so partisan there." But Peterson said that may be an overstatement: "It is not as bad as bad as you see on television. It is bad, but not as bad."