With the November vote still weeks away, polls show that Arkansas Sen. Blanche Lincoln’s re-election bid remains a tough slog. Rep. John Boozman, a veteran legislator who represents northwest Arkansas’ Third District and wants Lincoln’s Senate seat, intends to make it even tougher.

Lincoln may be suffering whiplash after weathering a challenge mounted by progressives during the spring primaries and then abruptly facing Boozman, an unabashed right-winger.

However, any voter trying to draw out differences won’t find much rhetorical space between the candidates on several key agricultural issues. Both candidates fawn over agriculture, both sound the alarm about the dangers of agricultural imports, both claim the estate tax is wrong, both are for trade deals and push reforms on U.S./Cuba policy.

Will agriculture-steeped Arkansans push aside Lincoln’s undeniably valuable role as chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee for Boozman’s drum-beating and promises regarding spending controls, radical tax reform and cultural issues? If current polls and anti-incumbency fervor hold up, the answer is “yes.”

Boozman spoke with Delta Farm Presson Sept. 17 and touched on his ties to state agriculture, studying up on row crops, funding for agricultural bills (including the recently announced 2009 disaster payments), immigration and his support for a national sales tax. Among his comments:

On ties to agriculture in Arkansas…

“I represent the Third District of Arkansas and we have a tremendous amount of agriculture in that part of the state. There are lots of beef cattle and poultry, although not as many row crops.

“For the last nine years, I’ve worked very, very hard to understand the row crop industry. Stanley Reed, former president of (Arkansas) Farm Bureau, is a good friend and has been instrumental in helping me in that regard.

“The other thing is — and I understood very quickly when I came into office — agriculture is so important to our state. Because of that, again, I’ve been very, very supportive (of agriculture) and will continue to do that…

“I used to have a bunch of cows and my family was very active in showing cattle. That was a big part of our lives. Next to church, probably the biggest influence on my family was 4-H. My girls were very active and all state record-book winners in 4-H. They showed cows all over the place.”

Next farm bill

On the next farm bill…

“I’ve been very, very supportive of the farm bills in the past. I’ll continue to be supportive of our farmers in the future.

“I think we’ve got a couple of problems going on as we go forward. There are more and more people in Congress that haven’t a clue what agriculture is all about and its importance.

“I argue in a couple of ways. First, I say, ‘If (farming) is so profitable, why aren’t more young people getting into it?’ Right now, the average age of farmers is 56-, 57-, 58-years-old.

“It’s very difficult to lead the (life of a farmer). It’s a wonderful occupation, but stressful. We need to be encouraging our farmers.

“The other thing (I remind fellow legislators of) is we’ve lost our manufacturing to a large extent. We’ve lost our energy production to a large extent by imported oil and products from all over the world. The last thing we need to do is get into a situation where we’re importing food.

“People say, ‘That isn’t going to happen.’ Well, it could happen very, very easily.

“The actual ‘farming’ part of the farm bill is really only 15 to 20 percent of the (total). Most of it has to do with food stamps and things like that.

“I’ll be working very hard with people like (Georgia Sen.) Saxby Chambliss, (Kansas Sen.) Jerry Moran … and others to ensure we get an equitable farm bill in place.

“Right now, with the tremendous deficit that we must get under control, I’m really concerned that the Obama administration in their efforts to secure funding for other programs will be looking (to raid farm programs). It’s something we’ll have to fight hard (for) and, certainly, I’m committed to doing that to protect the farming industry.”

Agriculture funding

Is it fair to say you view agriculture funding — based on what you said regarding the Obama administration — as something that … is very close to a locked box?

“I think agriculture is a pillar of the country and we need to do all we can to protect it. It’s a national security issue that we continue to have the ability to not only feed ourselves but the world. We do that in a very good way. We need to continue.

“I think it’s a great success story that we’ve been able to do that. And we need to continue to give our farmers the tools as they go forward. Because of that I’ll be very supportive of a good reauthorization of farm bill as we go forward.”

Disaster payments

I want to ask about the 2009 disaster payments announced a couple of days ago. You were for those?

“I was very much in favor of the agriculture disaster payments and lobbied the House leadership to get on the stick and get it done.

“The concern, I think, was that (Minnesota Rep.) Collin Peterson, chairman of the House Agriculture Committee, ranking member (Oklahoma Rep.) Frank Lucas and the ranking member on the Senate (Agriculture Committee, Chambliss) just didn’t feel like the (Obama) administration had the authority, or ability, to write a check for $1.5 billion. So, that was the hanging point not (a question of) whether it was needed. It was certainly needed…”

The sticking point “was ‘you should be doing these things through the right channels.’ There’s a right way to do things and wrong way. All of us felt this was the wrong way.”

Your views on the estate tax? Many times farms are brought into the debate even though, it’s my understanding, it is hard to find a farm that fits that formula. Can you elaborate?

“My views on the estate tax are very easy: I’d like to get rid of it, zero it out. The death tax is double taxation. I’ve voted on several occasions to get rid of it completely.

“With the (Obama) administration I doubt that’ll happen. Although, again, I’m very much in favor of getting rid of it.

“Hopefully, we can reach a compromise and I’ll be working with farmers and businesspeople as to what the limit will be. Hopefully, we can get something we can all live with that’s fair.

“My key there will be visiting with the farmers and businesspeople as to what we can live with.

“Also, the thing that’s so important is to make sure it’s indexed with inflation. (That way) we don’t get into a situation in a few years with inflation where we’re back to where, whatever those dollars are, they don’t represent a situation that protects our farmers and businesspeople as they try to pass their estate on.”

National sales tax

Your proposal for a national sales tax? I believe it’s pegged at 23 or 24 percent. How might that affect an agriculture-based state? How would that keep pace, as you’ve suggested, with the needs of our society?

“We need to get rid of the IRS. This is an agency that has more agents — aggressive agents, enforcement agents — than the CIA and FBI put together.

“Under this new health care law, (the IRS) will add 16,500 more agents to ensure (we all) do what we’re supposed to.

“So, we need to revamp the system…

“You’d shift from an income tax to a consumption tax — a sales tax. (By doing so), you’d abolish the IRS, abolish the payroll tax, abolish the death tax, and abolish all federal taxes.

“When you get a check, it would be all yours. You’d get a ‘pre-bate’ — a certain amount of money, monthly — that would take care of basic essentials … That would take care of people in poverty.

“It’s a different way of looking at things.

“Others have suggested the ‘fair tax’ where you’re taxed a certain percentage. I’m quite willing to look at that. And I’m quite willing to look at radically revamping what we have now.

“As I visit with the people of Arkansas, they want something fair and simple. The time has come that we need to start a national dialogue in that regard.

“The one thing I’m very much opposed to is raising taxes. If you look at my record, I’ve consistently voted against increasing taxes for the last nine years. I’m very much committed to decreasing spending — that’s the problem we have — not increasing taxes.

“Whatever we do, we need to cut taxes and decrease spending.”

Immigration

Let me ask you about immigration, especially as it impacts agriculture. As you know, migrant labor is essentially the backbone in some … cotton gins. Your proposals on immigration?

“We need to do two or three things regarding immigration.

“First, I very much believe that we need to seal and secure the border. We need to do that not only because of illegal immigration but also because there’s a huge drug war going (happening) on the other side. The Mexican government is not winning that and it’s spilling over into our country.

“The other reason to secure the border is that we’re at war. We saw this with the Times Square incident where we almost had a bombing. We almost had a bombing on Christmas Day of the airliner.

“These are very serious things. We need to know who is coming and going into our country, right now.

“I would hold employers accountable, those who are hiring people they shouldn’t be. They need to be held accountable.

“No amnesty. That’s very important and something our nation can’t afford.

“I also believe very strongly that we need to make English our official language. That’s the tie that binds us together.

“In regards to agriculture, we all agree that ag desperately needs help. I think you do that through a very strong visa program and solve our labor problems in that way.

“One of the problems we see with ag, right now, is people will come over to work in (agriculture-related) programs. They’ll immediately get out of the ag program — out of the ag visa program, or whatever — not working on farms, leave and go to a more lucrative area.

“We must have a strong visa program that keeps people working the job they’re supposed to be in.

“I very much support the people of Arizona and the Arizona law. I think they had the ability and right to (pass the controversial law). They’re just trying to defend their border. The border is anarchy there, the lawlessness. And there’s a tremendous cost of social services, hospitals and schools and the people of Arizona said, ‘We’re not doing this anymore.’ Their law basically said, ‘We’ll enforce the federal law,’ and I think they have every right to do that.”

Trade issues

What about trade issues — especially Cuba and pending trade deals with Columbia, South Korea and Panama? There are two contingents, especially on the Cuba issue, and I wonder where you come down in that?

“I’m very supportive of trade with Cuba. As soon as I got to Congress, I was (a member) of the original Cuba Working Group … that advocated opening up Cuba for trade.

“That would be very beneficial for Arkansas. In fact, we’d be the leading benefiter of that because of our agricultural products.

“Besides that, I think that’s how you change countries. Not only are you trading products but ideas. The American philosophy will win it. We trade with a lot worse people than Fidel Castro. You have to be honest and consistent with that.

“I’ve consistently voted (for opening trade with Cuba) and will continue to. The good news is I think we have a good chance of getting that done in the not-too-distant future.

“As for Panama, Columbia and South Korea, I’ve consistently supported (trade deals) and consistently voted for that. We (don’t) need free trade but fair trade. These (pending) agreements have been hammered out. They’re good agreements…

“The only reason we’re not (passing the agreements) is the Obama administration is holding out because they want to force it so it’s much easier for the people of Panama to unionize. We have no business, at all, dealing with that sort of thing. … That’s just payback to organized unions.”

The House Cuba bill also contains the tourism/travel provision. Would you vote for that bill as is or insist the travel restrictions remain?

“I’m very supportive of travel (freedoms) remaining. The way you change countries is through dialoguing with other nations. As Americans go visit, they’ll exchange not only goods and services, but ideas. The American way of life will win in that regard.

“Castro recently announced he’d privatize many jobs in Cuba, get those back into the private sector so they can have a free market economy. All that is very, very positive. The way to continue that is to interact with Cuba and try to move them in the right direction.

“A good friend of mine who was in Congress for several years was (former University of Nebraska head football coach and Nebraska Rep.) Tom Osborne. He was very supportive of trade with Cuba. … I remember him standing on the floor of the House saying, ‘You know, I learned pretty quickly that if you ran the same play 40 times in a row and it didn’t work, you need to do something different. We’ve had the same policy with Cuba year after year after year and it hasn’t worked. We need to change.’”