By Haley Barbour
Today we had the opportunity to sit down with three minority staff members of the House Committee on Agriculture: Evan Jurkovich a drake alum, Matt MacKenzie, and Mike Straz. All three gave us insight into the differences in committee staff and member staff and how the House Committee on Agriculture operates.
Perhaps the most interesting insight that the three were able to convey is the difference between committee staff and individual member staff, a distinction that many Americans do not understand. The committee staff works with one committee in either the House or the Senate. Member staff however, work in the offices of individual members of either chamber. Committee staffers like Jurkovich, MacKenzie, and Straz are able to develop expertise in their committee’s topic area because they spend all of their time helping the members of that committee write and review new legislation.
Both Jurkovich and MacKenzie transitioned onto the Agriculture Committee staff from individual members’ offices. They said that the members’ staff do not have much opportunity or time to become an expert in any specific issue area because they have to have a basic understanding of them all to serve their member. Jurkovich further pointed out that the “absolute biggest difference” between the two types of staffers is constituents. Member staff have to help their member’s constituents first and foremost which only contributes to their inability to develop expert knowledge in a specific area.
We also spent a great deal of the visit discussing the day to day activities of the House Committee on Agriculture. This was an interesting discussion because of the unorthodox nature of the committee compared to others. The House Committee on Agriculture is traditionally one of the most bi-partisan of all the committees in the House. The same applies in the Senate. The members of the committee often come to consensus, and all three staff members commented on the collegiality within the committee. Straz joked that the ranking minority members sometimes joke that the Republicans are merely opposition, while the real enemy is the Senate.
All three staffers noted that divisions on the committee rarely fall along ideological lines, but rather by region of the country. For example, there is sometimes a north/south divide when deciding which crops to subsidize. The north is often more favorable to wheat and soybeans, while the south advocates for cotton and tobacco. They also noted that there is often a rural/urban divide among members when debating whether more funding should go towards farm subsidies or the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). However, when these regional divides do come up in debate, all three staffers pointed to the traditional bi-partisan atmosphere of the committee as the reason that these issues are usually resolved quickly.
The themes that Jurkovich, MacKenzie, and Straz brought up about the day to day operation echoed many that we heard from Deputy Under Secretary Lanon Baccam at the Department of Agriculture last Friday: there is a ton of bi-partisan support for agriculture. In addition, the distinction between committee staff and member staff in both chambers of Congress gives average Americans a peak around the curtain of how the legislative branch operates.