Mark Keenum has always impressed me as a man of many talents. But it wasn't until a recent meeting that I would have included being a salesman among them.
Keenum, who began his career as an agricultural economist with Mississippi State University, has served as Mississippi Sen. Thad Cochran's agricultural aide, helping write the 1990, 1996 and 2002 farm bills and other ag legislation, and, more recently, as Cochran's chief of staff.
At the meeting, Keenum was selling his boss's decision to leave the chairmanship of the powerful Senate Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry Committee to become chairman of the even more powerful Senate Appropriations Committee.
Anything having to do with money in Washington is a step up, but Mississippi farmers and others in the Mid-South were just getting used to having one of their own serving as chairman of a committee with oversight of all farm programs and other ag issues.
The chairmen of the ag committees in both houses will play major roles in the writing of the 2007 farm bill and, in the Senate, the ratification of the new Doha Round of the World Trade Organization — whatever that turns out to be.
But, as Keenum pointed out, the appropriations committee chairmen are likely to have an even greater say with what happens to farm programs and other issues given the expected emphasis on deficit reduction in the second Bush administration.
“The president has said he plans to reduce the federal deficit by one-half over the next five years,” said Keenum. “There are only two ways to do that: (1) raise taxes or (2) cut spending.”
Saying the latter is more likely, Keenum noted Cochran will be in a key position to help decide how to allocate what's left when the Senate and House budget committees make their cuts.
“Sen. Cochran is respected on both sides of the aisle,” he said. “Considering him to be thoughtful and deliberate, other senators look to him for leadership. We are fortunate to have Sen. Cochran in the role of dealing with a $2 trillion budget if he is named chairman of the committee.”
In a sign of things to come, House and Senate members agreed to an across-the-board spending cut of 0.75 percent in the fiscal 2005 omnibus spending bill they passed last month.
Washington sources say government agencies have been instructed to trim their spending requests for fiscal 2006 by 5 percent for the budget plan the president will submit shortly after his inauguration.
Keenum noted Cochran has also recommended that Undersecretary of Agriculture Bill Hawks replace departing Secretary Ann Veneman. Hawks, who currently oversees the marketing and regulatory program areas at USDA, owns a farming operation near Hernando, Miss.
White House officials reportedly are continuing to seek additional candidates for the position, but they might think twice before they start off on the wrong foot with the new Senate Appropriations Committee chairman.