By Catharine Richert and Gregory L. Giroux
Washington, DC (September 20, 2007)- Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns resigned Thursday amid reports he will run for the Senate in his home state of Nebraska. “I couldn’t have asked for a better secretary of agriculture,” President Bush said in accepting Johanns’ resignation. “He worked hard to put in motion a good farm bill. … He set the framework for success, and I’m confident we can get a good bill passed.”
Leaders of the Senate Agriculture Committee, which will have to approve anyone nominated to succeed Johanns, praised the outgoing secretary. “I always found him pleasant to work with and I was very impressed by how involved he was in this farm bill process,” said Agriculture Committee Chairman Tom Harkin, D-Iowa. Saxby Chambliss of Georgia, ranking Republican on the Senate committee, called Johanns “a strong advocate on behalf of American agriculture.”
But other Democrats said Johanns is leaving behind a lot of unfinished business. “It is completely irresponsible for the Agriculture secretary to leave his post right in the middle of negotiations in Congress over the next farm bill,” said North Dakota Sen. Kent Conrad. “The secretary has an obligation to stay in his post until the farm bill, which is the major responsibility of that post, is completed.”
Johanns, 57, served as Nebraska’s governor from 1999 until 2005, when he left to join Bush’s Cabinet. In addition to overseeing the administration’s farm bill proposal, he led efforts to reopen foreign markets that had banned U.S. beef imports after a case of mad cow disease.
Many Republican insiders see Johanns as their party’s strongest possible contender, with the best hope of holding the seat if Democrat Bob Kerrey, another former Nebraska governor (1983-87) and U.S. senator (1989-2001), jumps into the Senate race. Kerrey is president of The New School in New York City. Kerrey promises a decision soon, but he is keeping his own counsel and hasn’t telegraphed anything. He has not set a timetable to make a decision. Democratic strategists would try to convince Omaha Mayor Mike Fahey to seek the Democratic nomination if Kerrey does not.
Johanns may have to fight for the GOP nomination. Already in the field for the May 13 primary are state Attorney General Jon Bruning, former U.S. Rep. Hal Daub (1981-89) and investment banker Pat Flynn. Bruning, who was planning to challenge an incumbent senator, and Daub, who just entered the race, have no plans to drop out. Johanns would be the early Republican front-runner in a GOP primary, however. Bruning’s own poll has Johanns up by about nine points in a matchup of the two.
Deputy Secretary Charles F. Conner, a familiar face at USDA, on Capitol Hill and among farmers, will be named acting secretary and is a potential nominee to succeed Johanns. Conner is generally credited as the chief architect of USDA’s farm bill proposal earlier this year, which strongly advocated a major restructuring of farm subsidies to wean farmers from federal dollars and make U.S. agriculture programs more compliant with international trade rules.
For more information, visit Congressional Quarterly or The Hill.