Science, agriculture and inflation
• Congressman Frank Lucas discusses topics that interest northwest Oklahomans
October 30, 2022
Waiting for the Town Hall start time, Congressman Frank Lucas chatted with people as they arrived in the Ranger Room on the campus of Northwestern Oklahoma State University in Alva. The topic of farming mishaps came up, and Lucas recounted an experience while working with cattle. A calf made a sudden move, hitting him in the face and knocking out a front tooth. This was on a Sunday, and he made an emergency call to his dentist because he didn't want to appear in Washington, D.C., the next day with a gap in his smile.
Opening the meeting, Lucas remembered his last time in Alva two years ago and said the world has changed some during what he calls the lost years. "The legislative lay of the land has changed dramatically," he said. With the general election coming up, he expects some changes. "The reason I bring that up is the legislative environment is a reflection of the political environment."
Explaining the non-productive atmosphere, he said, "Bear in mind, in the House the difference between the two sides is five seats. Speaker Pelosi is speaker because of five more Democrats than Republicans out of 435. In the United States Senate over the last two years, it's been an even tie."
Science, Space and Technology Committee
As the senior Republican member of the Science, Space and Technology Committee, if the election changes control in the House, Lucas would expect to become chairman. That's the committee in control of the National Science Foundation and its research programs, the entity that sets all the standards, the national weather service (NOAA) and the space program (NASA).
"It's a committee much like the ag committee that has worked in more of a bipartisan form," he said. "If you want to work on a committee where they scream at each other, you go to government oversight or budget."
Speaking of future work on NOAA and NASA, Lucas said, "In fairness, science committee's lots of fun because it's about the future. It's about things that are being created."
He said the committee has been very focused on STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics). "Those are where the overwhelming number of new jobs will be created in the economy," Lucas said. "How do we make sure the STEM opportunities are not just focused around the biggest universities on the east or west coast or not just where the biggest corporate entities are?"
While the chairman's focus has been on inner city STEM, Lucas said his focus has been on rural STEM.
Financial Services Committee
Another committee Lucas serves on is Financial Services. "The cost of and availability of capital," he explained. "Think of interest rates. Think of the availability of our money. The jurisdiction is over the Federal Reserve System, Treasury, insurance, the Securities Exchange Commission, just a variety of things."
He said they have spent a lot of time in that committee debating, both publicly and privately, about cryptocurrency. There's not a clear consensus in the committee about where to go on cryptocurrency issues. "It's kind of the wild west out there," he said of the wild gyrations in prices where it is traded. "I would suggest that you invest in cryptocurrency, this is just my advice for what it's worth ... while there's great potential, only invest the money you don't need."
Lucas said his legacy committee assignment, which he's been on leave from for a few years, is Agriculture, and he'll be back on that committee in January. "Agriculture economics, that's my personal profession, and it's the one industry that is everywhere in the third Congressional District," he said.
Next year is Farm Bill year. He described the Farm Bill as the safety net program designed to help producers deal with issues they can't control like weather and markets. However, it is also ag research, rural development, conservation, farm credit, rural broadband, all manner of things that are critical to the quality of life.
If political control changes in the House, Lucas said he expects they will take the 2014 Farm Bill, the third generation Farm Bill formed when he was chairman of the committee, and go forward with that.
He talked about the "miserable weather" over northwestern Oklahoma including his property in Ellis County. Speaking of the lack of rain, he said, "Mother Nature is continuing to devil us."
"Is 2022 a one year anomaly, or is it like 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014?" he asked. "Weather patterns remain to be seen, but what kind of resources will we have? Producers are dealing with the most dramatic increases in input prices in my lifetime."
He described buying dry nitrogen in 2021 at home at $450 a ton. "When I went in and I thought we were going to get some rain at the beginning of the year, it was $1,050 a ton. Last time I priced it was $650 a ton so that's better," he said. Since it has not rained, he said he hasn't priced it recently. He said there are numerous pressure points like the price of diesel and everything else. "Input costs are eating up producers."
Lucas said as crop insurance works now, if you have several bad years it begins to affect the safety net of the disaster while moving his hand lower and lower toward the floor. If this is a one year anomaly, he said farming will be okay. But if this is a multi-year pattern, "how do you make sure the crop insurance is still a safety net? That takes money, and we'll work our way through that."
If Republicans are not in control, Lucas said the chairman of the committee will be David Scott from Atlanta, Georgia. Although Scott is a nice guy, Lucas said, "He's not a farmer by trade. There's not a lot of agriculture in the city limits of Atlanta. That's the polite way of being snide. His claim to fame is he's had an advertising account with Coca-Cola for decades, and his brother-in-law is Hank Aaron."
He said Scott's focus, like the majority's focus, "is on what they refer to as environmental justice – its social justice." He said that could lead to a dramatic rewriting of the farm bill.
"Farm bills have been about resources following production, guaranteeing a steady, safe, affordable supply of food. But if the farm bill is used to determine who can farm and what they can farm, that takes us off the course we've been on since 1933. That concerns me a great deal," Lucas said.
2024 Presidential Election
"Right now, both President Biden and former president Trump are running for office. They're both totally convinced they're going to be on the ballot in 2024," said Lucas. "I would suggest to you that a lot of things could happen in the next 12 months. President Biden, in fairness, is showing a lot of wear and tear. If at some point he decides he doesn't run again, that shakes up the Democratic Party's nomination process. I personally don't see the vice president stepping into the role. I don't know who will step into the role. It changes things dramatically on that side of the table.
"President Trump's best opponent, if he runs again, is Joe Biden. If Biden's not there, then there have to be assessments. Donald Trump's not the kind of guy that's going to lose twice in one lifetime. So we'll see how it sorts out.
"If they're both on the ballot, then I was wrong and you can laugh at me in two years. If it's entirely a whole new set of faces, then you heard it here first."
College Debt Forgiveness
"Sometimes people speak through me, sometimes they speak to me, and if you've been to enough of my town meetings, sometimes folks just chew on me," said Lucas as the opened the floor for questions.
Jordan Green, editor of the Northwestern News, asked about the status of President Biden's college debt relief program. Lucas said it is tied up in court right now.
"It's a controversial program. I'm on a college campus, but it's a controversial program. I'm worried that it's creating a break in society," answered Lucas. "I've had more than one person say, 'I went to work at 18 or 20, work every day, trying to get my kids into Career Tech or community college or four-year comprehensive (college). I'm supposed to pay for somebody else's education? Education should help them to lead a better life and more earning potential. Is that fair?'
"It's a point that's being made by my constituents, and it was done by executive order. It's being appealed in the courts. It all sorts out. It's one of those cases where I look my folks in the eye and say, 'If it's going to actually be implemented and you qualify, you better fill out the paperwork, absolutely.'"
Green asked about Congress defying an executive order. Lucas said it was possible, but it would take time. If the money was spent before Congress could act, then it would be too late. And the issue is a land mine. Lucas commented, "Just as there are some who are concerned about it not benefiting them, so if you run a bill to do away with it before it is implemented, you infuriate some folks on the other side, too. It's in the courts. We'll just have to wait and see what happens."
Rural STEM Programs
NWOSU President Dr. Bo Hannaford asked, "What do you see in the areas of STEM that a place like Northwestern could look to, obviously cybersecurity and those type of things, what do you see coming down the pipe that we can prepare for?"
"On the committee, we're trying to encourage industry, who benefit from all these great people, to work us in crafting STEM programs that will get that access to opportunity out everywhere," said Lucas. "I use the phrase rural STEM, but that could be Alva, that could be Hollis, that could be anywhere. There's lots of things that can be done now remotely – the Intels of the world, Googles of the world, for that matter Ford, General Motors, Tesla. They have the ability to do things where we don't have to go to some big city. That's what we're pushing on now," Lucas said. "If we ever get past the supply chain issues so business American can focus again, I think we'll have more success."
Hannaford also asked about the need for rural broadband. Lucas said there is a need for a comprehensive plan, but we can't expect it to extend to the end of every dirt road. He described trying to do Zoom meetings from his home, explaining to other Congressional committee members that he was at the end of the copper phone line. "At some point I'm going to go ...," he said as he froze in place. "So I probably did the best job of advertising for northwest cable." He said his younger neighbors did cattle sales online. "You can't freeze up in the middle of cattle sales online, you just can't." He said we need to make sure we get our share of resources and use the combination route of broadband cable and satellite.
"So far all the federal government has done to fight inflation appears to be raising interest rates," said Arden Chaffee. "Would you be in favor of price controls like back in the '70s?"
"I'm old enough to remember Richard Nixon's price controls," said Lucas. "And, yes he was a Republican president. And from my old cattlemen in the room, I think you'll remember we went into price controls in '71 or '72, they came off in '74, and they caught us in the low number of cattle cycle, and they locked in the prices.
"Cattle numbers picked up, I'm speaking from a very personal perspective, when cattle prices went up suddenly we went from a 12-year low on cattle base price to a 6-year high. At my father's house, you suck your belt up. I ate more great northern beans over the next two years because we got caught on the back side. The cattle market disintegrated in '74." He said he was against price controls because of all kinds of distortions.
"What is inflation? It's too many dollars chasing too few goods and services. How do you fix it? Well, on the one hand, as we come out of Covid, people go back to work. We build things, we make things, we provide more services. The potential for buying inevitably goes up. But we also spent a huge amount of money on Covid. The national debt's $31 trillion now! Huge amount!
"So you will see, I believe, House controls. That's where spending and tax bills start under the Constitution. You'll see a dramatic tightening in spending in the House of Representatives. It's going to require some reprioritization on money.
"The Federal Reserve System, all the way back to the property boom and bust of '08 and '09 has operated on a low interest rate principle. And we went into Covid. We dramatically cranked up the quantity of easing. The best way I describe the quantity of easing is just printing money."
He talked about borrowing money to buy a house currently at an interest rate of three percent. "When I took money and banking in college, the old professor's lecture was for 500 years real interest rates were the cost of inflation plus four percent all the way back to the Italians in the 1400s. If that's the case, then real interest rates should be what ... 12 percent right now? So we've been operating, in truth, at a negative interest rate.
"We have to get back to a more rational policy on spending. On interest rates, we've got to be able to make rational decisions. So Congress spends less, Federal Reserve System slows down the stimulus, and we work our way back into balance. And it will not be a joyful experience. Some of us remember the early '80s. I borrowed calf feed, when I was a senior in college, at 17 percent. I was happy to get it."
See the entire town hall meeting on video at http://www.AlvaReviewCourier.com.