By Jerry Hagstrom
DTN Political Correspondent
WASHINGTON (DTN) -- In past interviews, Sam Clovis, President Donald Trump's nominee for Agriculture undersecretary for research, education and economics, has questioned the constitutionality of crop insurance. Those statements may endanger his nomination, according to comments made Tuesday by Senate Agriculture Committee ranking member Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., and Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman Pat Roberts, R-Kan.
At a hearing on commodity, crop insurance and credit programs, Stabenow said that a nominee coming before the committee had questioned the constitutionality of crop insurance. She did not mention Clovis by name, but it was clear she was referring to him.
"It is important we all continue to work together to make sure we have the resources we need for crop insurance," Stabenow said, adding she is worried that opponents of crop insurance would use Clovis' statements in their attempts to cut or eliminate the program.
At Stabenow's urging, a panel of farm group representatives that was testifying said crop insurance must be continued.
Roberts said, "If there is some nominee who is coming before the committee who says crop insurance is unconstitutional, they might as well not show up."
Roberts said after the hearing that it is too early to say whether the Trump administration should withdraw Clovis' nomination, but that Clovis should have an opportunity to explain to him and Stabenow "why in the hell he said that."
Roberts also said that questions about whether Clovis' background is strong enough in science can be addressed when he comes to Capitol Hill.
Stabenow's office also provided a link to a 2014 Iowa Public Radio interview (http://bit.ly/…) in which Clovis discussed his views on crop insurance and to a Politico story about a 2013 radio interview (http://bit.ly/…) in which he also discussed it.
The exchange about Clovis occurred a day after 22 farm groups endorsed Clovis, even though he does not have the scientific background that the law says the undersecretary is supposed to have.
Catherine Woteki, an Iowa State University professor who held the position in the Obama administration, has said the Senate should reject Clovis due to the lack of scientific qualifications. The Union of Concerned Scientists also has come out in opposition.
Besides Stabenow, Senate Appropriations Committee ranking member Patrick Leahy, D-Vt. and Sen. Chris Coons, D-Del. have also questioned the nomination.
Coons said, "I am extremely concerned about the nomination of Sam Clovis for the position of USDA undersecretary for research, education, and economics."
"The person who serves as the USDA's top scientist is required to actually be a scientist. This is not just my opinion, but also a statutory requirement. Mr. Clovis is a former Trump campaign adviser and conservative radio talk show host with no background in the hard sciences, nor expertise in agriculture policy.
"Additionally, he is an outspoken climate denier, claiming that climate science is 'junk science' and 'not proven' and stating that the Trump administration would not prioritize climate science in its agriculture policy. I believe that science, not baseless opinion, should underpin our decisions when it comes to our nation's agriculture policy," Coons said.
"Given the serious challenges facing America's farmers and our food system, from pollinator declines to deteriorating soil health to a changing climate, USDA's science mission is extremely important," he said.
"The USDA is critical in helping provide our farmers with the information they need to improve plant and animal resilience, be more effective stewards of their land and adopt new technology and practices on their farms. This could all be at risk if the agency's head of science has no relevant scientific training and rejects current scientific thinking."
Leahy tweeted that "Know-nothingism continues to ooze outward from the heart of Trumpism."
Iowa Public Radio published an interview with Clovis in May 2014, when he was in the Republican primary for a U.S. Senate seat.
In the interview, Clovis was asked the following question: "Even with a former Iowa governor heading up the Ag Department, farmers were kept in limbo for years over the new farm policies. How would you represent the interests of agriculture and rural Iowa?"
Clovis responded: "For me that's a fascinating question because, again, the farmers that I've talked to all across the state ... Let's be clear, there are certainly ag interests that are strong lobbying organizations that would prefer preferential treatment. But most of the farmers that I talk to, and again about nine out of 10 farmers that I talk to, want the government out of their lives.
"And they want to be able to produce and do the things that are necessary for them to grow their crops, take their crops to market, be paid what the market will bear and be able to continue in this cycle of agriculture where the government has less to do with what's going on instead of more to do with what is going on.
"The one area of interest is the insurance program. And I think that's one area that requires a significant amount of study, because what we have is a claim that is made in a way generally about every 13 years on crop insurance. And in some parts of the country, claims are made every year on crop insurance.
"You have to ask yourself, if a farmer in another part of the country is making a claim every year, why are they farming in that particular area if the risk is that high? That doesn't make any sense for the government to subsidize and support bad farming choices in other parts of the country and have people in the Midwest subsidize those bad choices, because this goes back again to where we need to assign risk at the point of exchange.
"We need to have risk assessment and risk assignment in the insurance program. And again, most of the Iowa farmers I talk to would just as soon have the government out of their lives and that includes the insurance program.
"Because if insurance programs were sold on the open market, farmers that were concerned about their issue and had them actualized statistically, I think you would find it very interesting to see how many farmers would take part in private insurance programs and how many would be willing to take the risk themselves.
"This is really the issue and this is the one thing in the farm bill that I think is the most contentious. And I think if we have future farm bills that's something that we're going to have to address, because I think that it's going to be difficult to get support for another farm bill in the country given the situation and the current state of the economy."
In the 2013 Iowa interview, when Jan Mickelson, a conservative talk radio host in the state, asked Clovis whether the U.S. constitution explicitly authorizes federal crop insurance, he said, "It does not. If you look at the enumerated powers, there's no, nothing in Article 1 Section 8 that authorizes subsidies of any kind."
Also during the hearing on Tuesday, Roberts urged Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConell, R-Ky., to take up the farm bill this year.
McConnell made a rare appearance at the hearing to introduce Mark Haney, president of the Kentucky Farm Bureau Federation, who was a witness.
During those comments, McConnell said he was looking forward to consideration of a new farm bill in 2018.
Roberts said that 2017 "would be better," adding that the committee marked up the 2014 farm bill in a morning and that it took only two days on the Senate floor.
"The sooner the better," McConnell replied.
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