Las Vegas Sun

November 28, 2015

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Heller making hay with the farm bill

Dean Heller

Dean Heller

Despite being one of the largest producers of alfalfa, the United States’ fourth-largest cash crop, Nevada usually sits on the sidelines every five years at farm bill time. That’s because unlike other cash crops, alfalfa farmers don’t receive federal subsidies.

This year, as lawmakers try to overhaul the national system of agricultural payments, Nevada’s alfalfa interests are especially far down the list of priorities.

In the 1,000-plus pages of the bill, alfalfa gets only three inconsequential mentions.

Likely no member of the Nevada delegation is more aware of alfalfa’s peripheral relevance to the farm bill than Sen. Dean Heller, who bought an alfalfa farm two years ago.

That made it all the more noticeable Thursday when he took it upon himself to drop a special amendment on the farm bill, banning “members of Congress, their spouses and immediate family members from benefiting from agricultural programs authorized in the farm bill.”

Can’t be too careful? Or just a can’t-miss opportunity?

“Probably a little bit of both,” said Fred Lokken, political science professor at Truckee Meadows Community College. “Ethics will obviously be one of the themes in the fall U.S. Senate campaign, and doing something like this now could provide him with a point of comparison for campaign literature and ads.”

Unfortunately, no ethical turn exists in a vacuum in Nevada, and the ethics of political influence is an issue that has already debuted on the sidelines of the Senate campaign.

“You certainly have had this issue involving Congresswoman Berkley and her husband,” Lokken continued. “It’s too early for Heller to play that card (openly) ... but it’s always useful to have a couple of cards to play later during the heat of the campaign.”

Provided they’re still relevant.

We’ll know in exactly one month whether the House Ethics Committee plans to dismiss the allegations that Berkley used her influence as a congresswoman to personally benefit her husband, kidney doctor Larry Lehrner, or whether the committee plans to proceed with a full-fledged investigation.

Berkley said last week she had not been contacted or heard anything from members of the Ethics Committee, which has until July 9 to announce how it intends to proceed.

The committee is tasked with making non-political decisions, and it’s worth noting that the committee is divided equally between Republicans and Democrats. If the vote to investigate Berkley is even, it will not move forward.

But until then, personal influence is a potential live wire — one that could even be turned on Heller, absent the proper precautions.

Heller doesn’t appear poised to lobby for the inclusion of alfalfa in the roster of crops that receive federal subsidies — nor for that matter does the alfalfa industry.

“We don’t want to be a program crop,” explained Beth Nelson, president of the National Alfalfa and Forage Alliance. “What we would like to see is a national research project for the alfalfa and forage industry ... and we need to be sure that when they are writing things (concerning subsidies) that alfalfa isn’t being penalized.”

Still, Heller certainly doesn’t want his alfalfa affinity to stick him in the same sort of pickle in which Berkley maintains she inadvertently became mired trying to advocate and vote in the best interest of her constituents. In the case of kidney care, that just happened to line up with her family’s own.

For what it’s worth, Berkley agrees with Heller’s amendment.

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