By RICK A. RICHARDS
WASHINGTON, D.C. — After six years, Joe Donnelly’s workplace has changed – not by much, but compared to where he was working, his new accommodations are a whole lot more intimate.
Instead of taking his seat on the west side of the U.S. Capitol with 434 others in House chambers, Donnelly will now have his own desk on the east side of the Capitol with just 99 other members of the Senate.
The three-term Democratic U.S. representative from Indiana’s 2nd District (a territory that stretched down the middle of the state from South Bend in the north to Kokomo, just north of Indianapolis) is the Hoosier state’s newest U.S. senator. Donnelly replaces Republican Richard Lugar, who lost in the May 2012 primary to Richard Mourdock. Donnelly defeated Mourdock in the Nov. 6 election.
“There is no way I can fill Senator Lugar’s shoes,” said Donnelly. “He is a legend. All I can do is the best job I possibly can.”
Donnelly, 57, from Granger, a suburb of South Bend, owned a small print graphic arts supply store before being elected to Congress. He is a native of Queens, N.Y., and came to Indiana to attend the University of Notre Dame, where he earned his undergraduate and law degrees.
In the Senate, he will serve on the Armed Services and Aging committees and is Indiana’s lone representative on the Agriculture Committee. During his tenure in the House, he spent two years on the Agriculture Committee and made it a point to visit with farmers and ag-related businesses each time he returned to the state from Washington.
It’s a practice he said he plans to continue. “When I visit with people, they tell me what makes sense,” he explained.
His visits to Indiana help ground him, said Donnelly, who admits he plans to follow Lugar’s example. Lugar, too, served on the Senate Agriculture Committee and was well-versed in what was important to Hoosier farmers.
“Senator Lugar has reached out to me and has offered to help in any way he can,” said Donnelly. “He is much the same as I am, in that we are both middle-of-the-road people who want to do what’s best for the people, and put that ahead of politics.”
Describing Lugar as “a giant” in the nation’s political landscape, Donnelly said he’s grateful to have the former senator’s help. Donnelly’s appointment to the Agriculture Committee has drawn praise from the state’s largest agricultural organization.
“Indiana Farm Bureau (IFB) is pleased with the appointment of Senator-elect Joe Donnelly to the Senate Committee on Agriculture,” said IFB President Don Villwock in a prepared statement. “At IFB’s annual convention on Dec. 8, Senator-elect Donnelly told our members that he had asked for this appointment. We’re pleased he got this opportunity.
“Farm Bureau looks forward to working with Senator Donnelly on the Agriculture Committee, which has such a significant role in determining federal ag policy. As a leading agricultural state, his new role on the committee is critical to Hoosier farmers.”
Farm bill a top priority
In looking ahead at the challenge before him, Donnelly said a priority will be a new farm bill. Although the 2012 farm bill was passed by the House in June, it never received a vote in the Senate and was set to expire at the end of the year. It was held up by the tax and budget bill that consumed Congress in December.
Because of that, the 2008 farm bill was extended for 12 months and is due to expire on Sept. 30 this year. Donnelly said that extension keeps current ag policies in place, but was only a small step in what needs to be done to address the changing needs of the nation’s agriculture.
“Even though the farm bill was extended for a year, we need to make sure it’s a key component of the nation’s economic policy,” he said. “As the economy continues to grow, we need to make sure the demand for American crop exports continues to grow.”
Donnelly said he wants to create an economy that will sustain the increased demand for corn, which has pushed prices to record highs. “There is demand for ethanol, as livestock feed and for other uses. It will be a balancing act, but we need to make sure there is enough corn to meet all those demands.”
At the same time, he said there are “significant financial challenges facing us” that require a new government strategy to make sure the nation gets on a more solid financial footing.
“I think that as talks begin on the new farm bill, you’re going to see very few, if any, subsidies,” said Donnelly. “I think there will be more emphasis on the use of crop insurance to cover any losses instead of subsidies.”
Earlier this year, Donnelly signed a letter to House Republicans Speaker John Boehner of Ohio and Majority Leader Eric Cantor and Democrats Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and Minority Whip Steny Hoyer, urging the House to take quick action on the farm bill, which was approved by the House Agriculture Committee on a 35-11 vote.
That didn’t happen, and Donnelly said the bill needs to be one of the first priorities when the 113th Congress begins its work this month.
“We all share the goal of giving small businesses certainty in these challenging economic times,” he said, in the letter. “Agriculture supports nearly 16 million jobs nationwide and over 45 million people are helped each year by the nutrition program in the farm bill.
“We have a tremendous opportunity to the court of farm and nutrition policy for another five years, while continuing to maintain and support these jobs nationwide.”
For Indiana, Donnelly said farmers need to know a farm bill will be passed soon so they will know what programs are available to them.
“For generations, the agriculture industry in Indiana has driven our economy and strengthened our local communities by growing crops and raising livestock to feed the world and by employing thousands of Hoosiers,” he added. “We need to ensure that our agriculture community continues to thrive.”