You are here

Wall Street Journal: Pelosi Cultivates Her Own Style In Building Support for Farm Bill

By David Rogers

WASHINGTON -- More Armani than Carhartt, Speaker Nancy Pelosi brings her style of coalition politics to the House farm-bill debate this week as she tries to balance the need for change in federal agricultural programs with the Democrats' dream of reviving the party's historic urban-rural alliances.

It's a goal the San Francisco liberal has pursued since the early 1980s, when as chair of the state party she traveled California's back roads with her children in tow, working to bridge the political gap between rural inland and more-urban coastal interests. In 2003, as House Democratic leader, she created a working group to address rural concerns. And last winter, Ms. Pelosi became the first House speaker in decades to address the National Farmers Union convention, where she promised the disaster aid delivered this spring.

The five-year farm bill now before the House is a greater challenge, since the choices can be painful and make it harder to hold different factions in her caucus. The same sort of change-versus-status-quo trade-offs are repeated in continuing negotiations over energy legislation and auto-fuel standards, and as Ms. Pelosi weighs her options, she reveals more of her leadership style.

In the case of the farm bill, freshmen Democrats elected from rural districts last year need some assurance that loan and subsidy programs important to their farmers will survive. But to move a bill forward with urban support also demands cuts from some programs and new payment limits -- which can upset powerful commodity groups -- to placate those demanding more reform.

A Democratic political memo last month predicted that rural America will be a major battleground next year, as the Iraq war continues to pull down President Bush's poll numbers. But the landscape has also changed dramatically since the 1960s and '70s, when the legendary Rep. Phillip Burton, a California Democrat who held Ms. Pelosi's seat at the time, walked the House floor, trading with cotton and peanut interests in order to get the votes for food-stamp and health benefits important to the party's urban-labor agenda.

In the House today there are fewer of the rural Southern Democrats who helped Mr. Burton; in the Midwest, farmers have left the land, giving way to development. New budget rules restrict federal spending. The biofuels explosion is driving up land prices and altering rural economies. And a once-fledgling 'agriculture reform' movement, powered by public-interest activists such as the Environmental Working Group, has gained strength, demanding crop-subsidy cuts.

To navigate these hurdles, Ms. Pelosi has allied with House Agriculture Committee Chairman Collin Peterson, pressing him to be more open in his bill to changes in federal farm programs, but also promising to support him against amendments on the House floor.

Mr. Peterson, from a huge Minnesota district of wheat, sugar beet and poultry farms, is very much part of the agriculture-subsidy establishment. Nevertheless, the package his committee approved last week would tighten subsidy limits and require more transparency, making it harder to hide payments to multiple entities. Fruit and vegetable growers, often ignored in past farm bills, get more aid; cotton and crop-insurance interests face cuts. Small ranchers won rules requiring country-of-origin meat labeling, and all farmers would be able to try out new 'revenue protection' programs to safeguard against low crop yields as well as poor markets.

'Peterson made some surprising moves' in the bill, an administration official said.

The chairman credits Ms. Pelosi for giving him the support needed to make change. 'She has been our greatest ally, trusting us, backing us,' Mr. Peterson said. 'She was sending us a message that we needed reform. We know that.'

Many activists argue the bill still falls short. Despite high corn prices, those growers would get billions in annual subsidies -- at a time Ms. Pelosi has asked tax writers to come up with $4 billion in new revenue to meet House budget targets.

'I am personally a longtime fan of Nancy Pelosi,' says Environmental Working Group President Ken Cook. 'But at every turn all the decisions were given to the subsidy lobby. This is an unwelcome surprise that she has put her fingers on the scale so heavily.'

Philosophically, Ms. Pelosi is much closer to those who want more change, but on the farm and energy bills she has proven to be more pragmatic than many expected.

There is a fierce, often religious-based idealism about her: 'Seventeen centuries ago, St. Augustine said any government that is not formed to promote justice is a bunch of thieves,' she says. 'In order to do the job, you have to have a belief. It's what drives your engine, what you keep coming back to.'

But she also sees herself as an executive who must make decisions or watch her options disappear. Impatient with the drift of a party meeting on the Iraq

war, she began going around the room asking members to say where they stood. 'When you become an executive, you must be intuitive, you must act,' she says. 'If you wait, your options diminish.'

Decisions also mean this first-ever woman speaker must rein in the House's old bulls who were her superiors when she was a junior member. 'It's a new order,' she says. 'I don't think, 'How can I ask David [House Appropriations Committee Chairman Obey] to do this when he was my chairman?' I don't think that at all. I'm the speaker.'

Nonetheless it isn't easy, as seen in the protracted public sparring between her office and House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman John Dingell (D., Mich.), an outspoken auto-industry ally in the fight over fuel-efficiency standards. 'We're doing fine,' Ms. Pelosi insists. Moments later, she lets out a laugh that is part yelp.

'It's a rough place I'll tell you that,' she says. 'Washington is a challenging place to move because there are vested interests that will fight the fight. But at the end, we'll make the change.'

Coalitions aren't just building blocks toward power, she insists, but a way to teach different elements of her caucus to listen to one another. Her model isn't the famously bullish Mr. Burton -- 'a big humma humma' she says -- but rather her father, a quieter figure who served in the House before becoming mayor of Baltimore.

When she came to Congress, he gave her some things that had been in his House office, including a stone figure of a coal miner. Early in her career, the figure caught the eye of Rep. John Murtha from Pennsylvania

coal country. The strong friendship that grew from that chance meeting helped make her speaker.

'Jack Murtha saw this coal miner carved out of stone and said, 'What is that?' I said, 'It was about understanding we have national responsibilities and the coalition building you have to do.''