WASHINGTON — Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns announced his resignation Thursday, leaving the Bush administration without its leading public voice on a farm bill that's entering a crucial legislative stage.
Johanns, a former Nebraska governor, is expected to announce a run for the vacant U.S. Senate seat in his home state next year. His resignation comes as the Senate turns to divvying up a quarter of a trillion dollars on Agriculture Department programs for the next five years.
"He worked hard to put in motion a good farm bill," President Bush said at a brief Rose Garden news conference Thursday morning. "He wisely shepherded the process in such a way that we have a good farm bill before the Congress."
In truth, the Bush administration has raised pointed concerns about a $286 billion farm bill that the House of Representatives passed in late July. The White House previously threatened that Bush would veto the House bill, contending that the final bill needed "real reform."
Next week, after repeated delays, the Senate Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry Committee is scheduled to start writing its own legislation.
"I don't think we skip a beat," said California Democratic Rep. Dennis Cardoza, who chairs the House horticulture and organic agriculture subcommittee.
Cardoza noted that other Agriculture Department officials already have been shouldering the load behind the scenes. Cardoza's California colleague on the House Agriculture Committee, Democratic Rep. Jim Costa, agreed that Johanns was largely an "outside" contributor to the farm bill negotiations.
Johanns has avoided the notoriety surrounding other Cabinet secretaries, notably former Attorney General Alberto Gonzales. Illustratively, the satirical newspaper The Onion's latest issue includes a mock headline declaring: "Mike Johanns Only One Showing Up To Cabinet Meetings Now."
In farm country, through, Johanns enjoys more star power.
While he said Thursday that he "look(s) forward to returning to the good life of Nebraska," many expect that he'll announce his Senate candidacy quickly. Before his agriculture secretary appointment in January 2005, he served six years as the governor of Nebraska.
Nebraska's maverick Republican Sen. Chuck Hagel has announced his own retirement after serving two terms.
Chuck Conner, an Agriculture Department and Capitol Hill veteran who's now the department's deputy secretary, will serve as acting secretary. The 1980 Purdue University graduate already has been active in the farm bill negotiations, which haven't always gone the department's way.
White House officials, for instance, oppose the House bill's higher crop subsidies and looser payment limits. Direct payments to a farmer who's growing cotton, rice, wheat or corn could reach $60,000, up from the current $40,000 limit. The House bill also eliminates payment limits on marketing loans, which are another form of subsidy.
California, Texas, Mississippi and Missouri all rank in the top 10 for marketing-loan payments over the past decade, according to an Environmental Working Group database.
Johanns has praised some congressional efforts, including higher spending for fruits and vegetables. The House bill identifies some $1.7 billion in such specialty crop spending. This week, 33 senators circulated a letter asking the Senate to double that amount.
"These crops are essential to the health and well-being of all Americans," declared the senators, led by Democratic Sen. Debbie Stabenow of Michigan.
Johanns heard similar messages during 52 field hearings the department convened in preparing for this year's farm bill debate. The public sessions spanned venues from the Fresno (Calif.) County Fairgrounds and Florida's Miami-Dade College to the Kansas State Fair, with Johanns serving as a public spokesman and chief listener.
"Your suggestion to talk to as many farmers, ranchers and stakeholders as possible in developing the administration's 2007 farm bill proposal proved very wise," Johanns, 57, told Bush in his resignation letter.
Behind the scenes, Conner sat in the House Agriculture Committee hearing room during the long hours of the farm bill markup in July. Johanns showed up near the end of the extended sessions to talk to reporters.