Blanche Lincoln and her committee of chairmen

October 2, 2009

On the congressional scale of measurement, Blanche Lincoln got a plum of a birthday present — the gavel as Senate committee chairman. She is the first woman to head the Agriculture Committee. Amid the congratulatory banter on Sept 30, Lincoln’s 49th birthday, were reminders of the enduring power of its members, past and present.

LincolnAs Lincoln noted, her committee includes the chairmen of four other committees — Budget, Judiciary, Finance and Health. It is a higher number of sitting chairmen than most Senate committees and allows a useful melding of interests.

Finance chairman Max Baucus and Budget chairman Kent Conrad used their jurisdictions to help write the 2008 farm law, for example, sometimes in seeming competition with Tom Harkin, who passed the gavel to Lincoln and is now Health chairman. Harkin holds a historical footnote for chairing Agriculture twice.

Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell is an Agriculture member as well. In years past, Republican Bob Dole and Democrat Tom Daschle served on Agriculture while also party leaders in the Senate.

Chairmen are thick on the ground in the Agriculture Committee by another gauge too. Five of its former chairmen sit at the head of the table with Lincoln — Democrats Harkin and Pat Leahy on her right and Republicans Saxby Chambliss, Richard Lugar and Thad Cochran on her left.

“Maybe we should have a special chairman’s pin (for) former chairmen,” remarked Leahy, now Judiciary chairman.

Further down the table are Republicans Pat Roberts of Kansas, a former House Agriculture Committee chairman, and Mike Johanns of Nebraska, who resigned as U.S. agriculture secretary two years ago to run for the Senate.

“Just don’t forget us Northerners,” appealed Republican John Thune of South Dakota. Southerners are in charge of the committee — Lincoln is an Arkansas Democrat and the Republican leader on the panel, Chambliss, is from Georgia.

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