By Allison Winter, The New York Times
Rep. Collin Peterson, the outspoken House Agriculture Committee chairman who has emerged as a key figure in the climate debate, is used to rocking the house.
He has done so, guitar in hand, at night clubs, the Grand Ole Opry and Farm Aid as the leader of rock-country bands. And with gavel in hand, he has often rocked the boat in Congress, frequently going against his party on key votes and fighting for fiscal restraint as a founding member of the conservative "Blue Dog" Democrats.
Now the 10-term congressman from western Minnesota -- described as "tough," "stubborn," "smart," and "skillful" by his colleagues, a "champion" by farm groups and a "bully" by those on opposing sides -- is shaking up the climate debate.
Peterson is the de facto spokesman for the dozens of farm groups that have come out in opposition to the sweeping proposal for cap-and-trade legislation, one of the key agenda items for Democrats this year. He is working with House leadership and one of the bill's authors to try to find a way to address concerns with the attempt to curb greenhouse gases, which he thinks is not "practical" for farmers or the ethanol industry.
In ushering the massive farm bill to final passage last year, Peterson has already proved himself a skilled politician who could win the support of the House's liberal leadership and steer complicated and sometimes controversial legislation to final passage -- even over a presidential veto. Since then, he has defied expectations that the Agriculture Committee would fade into the background, taking strident positions on ethanol, an active role on commodities trading and now a key position on the climate bill.
Along the way, the 65-year-old former farmer, rock musician and accountant has clashed with environmentalists, the Obama administration and members of his own party in Congress. He was one of 11 Democrats that voted against the economic stimulus plan and has frequently ranked among the Democrats voting most often against his party's leaders.
Peterson says he does not set out to be a contrarian. Rather, his approach often boils down to an effort to find "practical" solutions that make sense to someone trained to crunch numbers as an accountant and that can work in the rural farm district he represents.
"Things have to make economic sense, they have to make practical sense -- how it's going to work from a business standpoint, a business model," Peterson said in an interview last week. "I look at things that way. I think a lot of people don't. They get this ideology in their head that if they just pass a law things are going to be this way. And in the real world, that is not always the case."
In what colleagues describe as classic Peterson style, he has recently lashed out against U.S. EPA's proposed regulations on biofuels and asked lawmakers to rethink the cap-and-trade bill that cleared the Energy and Commerce Committee last month.
Peterson -- known to speak his mind in a straightforward, no-nonsense manner that often offends those who he opposes -- said he has no intention to be "diplomatic" about this bill. It is an approach his colleagues say they have come to expect.
"He is very determined, which at times may be manifested as stubborn, and other times seen as deeply principled," said Rep. Earl Pomeroy (D-N.D.).
Colleagues on the Agriculture Committee hope Peterson can use the relationships and partnerships forged during 19 years in Congress and the recent farm bill debate to continue to advance the interests of rural areas -- a constituency far outnumbered by urban and suburban lawmakers in the House.
"Chairman Peterson has the ability to cooperate when necessary and be as tough as nails when necessary, so it depends -- frankly, it probably depends less on Chairman Peterson than the others he has to work with to achieving a compromise," Rep. Dennis Cardoza (D-Calif.), who chairs a subcommittee of the Agriculture panel, said of the climate legislation. "If the others are willing to sit down and work with him, they'll achieve a good result. If they don't, they'll run into a brick wall."
Looking for the practical With the climate bill -- like many things in his life -- Peterson sees himself as looking for the "practical."
"I will go along with this, even though I am somewhat skeptical, if I can be convinced that this is going to work, that it's practical, that it makes sense," Peterson said. "That's where I am coming from. I am not carrying water for anybody, I'm just trying to make sense out of this."
Thus far, he is not convinced. He is worried the bill will give EPA too much authority to regulate how farms and ranches can participate in programs that could pay them to offset carbon emission through practices like planting more trees or practicing no-till farming. Farmers have long distrusted EPA, an agency they associate with restrictive regulations or fines. For Peterson and other members of the Agriculture Committee, that distrust has exploded in recent months since the agency proposed rules, required by the 2007 energy bill, to calculate the carbon footprint of biofuels.
Corn-based ethanol does not come out ahead under EPA's calculation, which takes into account indirect land-use issues overseas. Peterson calls it "ideology run amuck" and says the agency has "no clue" how farmers operate and what kind of risks they would have to take to transition to the next generation of cellulosic ethanol.
The furor from farm groups has spread. Even before debate begins on the other side of Capitol Hill, Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.), one of cap and trade's most fervent opponents, this week began promoting some of the concerns that agriculture groups presented in 2,000 pages of public comment that Peterson gathered.
"We're having problems with the EPA because it's not practical -- they've been hijacked by some of these ideological environmental types, and that is why I am not going to go along with any system that has the EPA in charge of agriculture," Peterson said. "I think it's just a recipe for disaster and I'm not going to go along with it, period."
It is not the first time Peterson has clashed with "environmental types" in defense of the farmer. His 2008 farm bill won somewhat reluctant support from environmental groups that favored its unprecedented investment in conservation and renewable energy but disliked some new requirements placed on conservation programs. Even though the funding levels for conservation programs were high, environmental advocates say they felt like conservation was not a top priority for Peterson, who they felt was often a "bully" in negotiations. After a coalition of environmental groups advocated for payment limits on crop subsidies, Peterson insisted that any limitations should also apply to conservation programs. He succeeded in placing some new restrictions on conservation programs in the bill.
"He's tough -- he doesn't always get the value of conservation," said one environmental lobbyist who did not want to be named because of ongoing negotiations with the Agriculture Committee. "His policy and heart and soul are all in supporting big ag."
Peterson represents a large, rural area of Minnesota. Bigger than Maryland and Delaware combined, the 7th District stretches down the sparsely populated western half of the state. It includes northern communities so remote that Peterson, a licensed pilot, used to fly a float plane to visit them. Lakes are more abundant and convenient than airports, so he would touch down in a lake before hopping in a car to join a local parade.
The district leans conservative. In the 2008 presidential campaign, voters there favored Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) by a narrow margin while Peterson won his re-election bid handily, with more than 70 percent of the vote.
When Peterson first won his congressional seat in 1990, he had campaigned as a wildlife advocate against the Republican incumbent, Arlan Stangeland, who had been ranked on environmentalists' "dirty dozen" list, according to James Read, a political science professor at St. John's University in Minnesota.
"At that time, his reputation was as an environmentalist," said Read, noting Peterson had won an award for his work on a wildlife bill in the state Legislature. "So environmentalists ended up being supportive of him. But once he was in office, he ended up being something very different from what people had expected."
Read added: "If agricultural interests are against the environment, he always sees himself on the side of the agricultural interest."
On climate change, Peterson has questioned whether there is enough data to support the need for cap-and-trade legislation, and noted that warmer temperatures might not be all that bad for his farmers.
"My problem this year is it's been so cold that the crops aren't coming up," Peterson told reporters yesterday. "And they're saying to us, 'Oh, it's such a big problem because it's going to be warmer than it usually is.' My farmers are going to say that's a good thing -- we're going to be able to grow more corn."
Pomeroy, whose North Dakota district neighbors Peterson, says he is emblematic of the farmers he represents. "He is very representative in personality and style of many of the Scandinavian constituents he represents," said Pomeroy. "He is understated, very smart, focused on issues important to his district and to his responsibilities as agriculture chairman."
From potatoes to rock 'n' roll to Congress
The son and grandson of farmers, Peterson learned about the risks of farming the hard way. As the eldest child with seven younger sisters, Peterson says he was tilling his dad's fields at 10 years old and there is "nothing on the farm I haven't done." With a large family and flat land that was prone to frequent floods, his father struggled to find a farming venture that could support the family -- trying corn, soybeans, pinto beans, sunflowers, potatoes, wheat, barley, cattle, hogs and even sheep.
"We would switch around because we were just trying to figure out how to survive," said Peterson -- noting that there were not reliable farm supports or crop insurance at the time.
During high school, Peterson built up his own herd of 20 cattle. "I decided I was going to be a big-time farmer, so I sold my cattle, and I took all the money and put it in potatoes," Peterson recalls.
He rented land, planted the potatoes, then watched them get washed out in heavy rains. He planted again, only to be met with another flood. He still remembers the last rain on July 4, 1962, when there was 3 feet of water. He planted potatoes three times but did not harvest one of them.
"Some years you could make a fortune on potatoes, so I was gambling that it was going to be a good year, it looked good in the spring," Peterson said. "I gambled wrong. ... I lost everything I had."
Out of money and out of hope for farming, Peterson dug ditches for the county for the rest of the summer to save up money to go to college. Burned by the experience, Peterson gave up on farming and studied the more predictable field of accounting at Moorhead State University in Minnesota.
His farming experience would come back to serve him in the House, but he also credits the experience with making him more risk-averse in other areas of life.
A guitarist and singer, Peterson toured with his band the Blue Boys in the early 1960s, playing ballrooms in the plains state on the same circuit as Jerry Lee Lewis and Conway Twitty. But when his grades started to fall after all the late nights of music, he was forced to make a decision to continue with music or focus on school and his accounting studies. Peterson went with accounting.
"I decided I better get a legitimate career here. Maybe I could have gambled," Peterson said. "I think the gambling I did on farming made me a lot more cautious, when I got burned."
Peterson has continued to front bands -- including in a bipartisan all-congressional band The Second Amendments that has played the White House and for troops abroad -- but it is now strictly a side gig to politics, a field Peterson says he fell into "kind of by accident."
Running for Congress was ultimately a practical move as well. Peterson got started in politics as a local officer in the Jaycees, a young business group, then won a seat in the Minnesota Senate. But the state political post conflicted with tax season -- leading Peterson to decide he needed to either make politics a full-time job or quit. He made four unsuccessful bids for the U.S. House seat before winning in 1990.
The 'tough' negotiator Peterson displayed during the farm bill debate that he is a skillful politician -- one that his colleagues all describe as a "tough" negotiator who sticks to his guns.
Despite budgetary difficulties and opposition to farm subsidies from a wide range of interest groups, Peterson crafted legislation that kept much of the decades-old "safety net" for farmers intact. With extra funding for nutrition programs, energy and conservation, Peterson was able to build a coalition that included House leadership, urban lawmakers and some environmental groups.
The final version of the bill, which closely mirrored the version that first cleared the Agriculture Committee, won wide backing in the House and Senate.
"Collin is deeply knowledgeable and a very tough negotiator," said Sen. Kent Conrad (D-N.D.), a chief negotiator on the farm bill for the Senate side. "He is tough, tough."
Environmentalists that were at odds with him on some issues said they could find no effective way to pressure him -- that attempts to do so would often just send him in the opposite direction. Sen. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa), who opposed Peterson on payment limits for crop subsidies, said he was tough but respectful.
"He is very tough, but then you have to be tough," said Grassley. "I've been in the same position he's been in, and you have to be tough."
When asked if he agrees with their assessment of tough negotiations, Peterson laughed. "I don't know that I negotiate, I just do what I think is right," he said.
Whether they liked the final product or not, lobbyists who tracked the farm bill say it showcased Peterson's strength and skill in getting his ideas to the finish line.The massive multibillion-dollar bill was one of few pieces of legislation the highly politically charged House completed in 2008. In the end, Peterson was able to get a wide range of interest groups on board and override a presidential veto twice.
"No one thought we'd get a farm bill done," said Tom Buis, who was president of the National Farmers Union during the farm bill debate and now presides over the biofuels advocacy group Growth Energy. "There was a very tense, often partisan divide in Congress, but Collin Peterson not only got 300 and some odd votes the first time, and an even greater number on the first presidential override and even greater on the second."
Dancing with Pelosi
Another key to Peterson's success in the farm bill was the help he won from House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. Peterson and Pelosi forged a good working relationship during the back and forth on the farm bill, and the speaker ultimately used her power to help him obtain more funding for the bill and advance the committee's blueprint without significant changes, even though its support for farm subsidies put her under fire from some quarters -- including from some of her San Francisco constituents.
Lobbyists who followed the debate say Peterson helped convince Pelosi she should help protect vulnerable Democratic lawmakers from rural areas. Pelosi embraced farm issues with gusto. After addressing the 2007 National Farmers Union conference, Pelosi stayed and danced with farmers while Peterson's band performed.
"She was key in getting the farm bill to a vote, and he had to have her support for it," said Richard Krause of the American Farm Bureau Federation. "Together they did a good job of advocating for farmers' interests."
Peterson says he still has a good relationship with Pelosi but has no illusions that her dances with farmers will necessarily mean she will take his side this time around. He and Pelosi were "on the same page" with the farm bill's energy title, Peterson said. But they are at loggerheads over provisions of the 2007 energy bill -- which Pelosi also helped broker -- and the climate legislation.
"Now what is being done in the '07 energy bill and the climate change bill will threaten that energy independence -- whether she sees it that way, probably not," Peterson said. "She listens to me and sometimes she gets that look on her face like, you know, she doesn't really get what I am talking about, but we'll see how this all plays out."
Peterson added: "I am not willing to throw energy independence under the bus to get to climate change. That is basically where I am coming from."