Pat Roberts will still hang around the Senate Agriculture Committee chamber for years after he officially retires at the end of the term.
Or, at least, the Republican Kansas senator said, he will continue to have a presence on the committee he chaired for the past six years.
No, Roberts, 83—whose political career spans 40 years, eight farm bills and nearly 600-plus authored pieces of legislation—won’t be roaming the halls with his gavel. However, his portrait will watch over the committee—alongside the portraits of other former chairs.
“Rest assured, I will be keeping an eye on things from my perch from this portrait on the wall,” Roberts said with a smile during the unveiling ceremony on Nov. 17. He added that the artist, Steve Craighead, “had quite a task in making this old Marine look good hanging on the wall.”
Roberts was first elected to Kansas’ Big First District in 1980, succeeding Keith Sebelius for whom he previously worked. He served 16 years in the House and almost 24 in the Senate, making him the longest-serving member of Congress in Kansas history. He also is the only United States lawmaker to chair both the House and Senate Agriculture Committees.
In the House, he authored the landmark 1996 Freedom to Farm legislation, which removed federal controls over what crops farmers could grow. He also helped craft bills in the Senate with the help of his bipartisan relationship with ranking committee Democrat Debbie Stabenow of Michigan.
Stabenow presented Roberts with chocolate-covered Michigan cherries.
“I’m not kidding when I say we might not have had (a Michigan cherry) industry without crop insurance,” Stabenow said, adding that during the writing of the 2012 bill her state’s cherry growers were “just about wiped out because of the weather.
“We worked together to add specialty crops and crop insurance,” Stabenow said. “The outcome was a bill for all farmers—from wheat farmers in Kansas to cherry growers in Michigan.
The two had a history of teaming up to get things done, she said, including during the 2018 farm bill.
"At the beginning of the negotiations, we made a commitment to work together and that we would have each other's backs and that we would always tell each other the truth—there would be no surprises," she said. "And that happened as we went through the process."
Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue, along with former secretaries Dan Glickman and Mike Johanns, all recorded tributes. House Agriculture Committee Chairman Collin Peterson, D-MN; former Kansas Sen. Bob Dole, industry leaders and former staff also shared memories and well wishes.
“Agriculture is going to miss you,” Peterson said. “You have been such a solid rock over all the years, and I don’t think you can be replaced.”
Roberts said he was humbled to be honored by his friends and colleagues, adding that it was especially fitting that many were tuning in from their dining room tables since the work of the committee impacts every household in the country.
“When I assumed the gavel as chairman nearly six years ago, I knew this committee had a long history of caring more about the issues than the ideology, more about the people than the party,” Roberts said. “It is in this spirit of service that I sought to guide our committee’s work.”
Over the years, some members changed, he said. However, the committee’s principles never wavered. Members worked to represent their constituents, advocating for reliable trade policies, crop production technologies, biosecurity, rural broadband, along with countless other issues. He said he was especially proud of the eight farm bills he helped write, along with securing 87 Senate votes in favor of the 2018 law, which was the widest margin of support for a farm bill in history.
He was disappointed he didn’t get 90.
“In times when we hear a great deal about gridlock and partisanship, I am proud that we have maintained a committee that has proven to be an exception,” Roberts said. “As a chairman, I can assure you it is not just about having the gavel. It’s what you do with it that matters most.”
Roberts said his colleagues on the committee have become family and worked across the aisle to accomplish goals.
“We gather around a single table for hearings and meetings,” he said. “We travel to sit on a wagon tongue to listen to constituents on their own turf—often to very rural and remote locations. Sure, we have different views and opinions, but we try to set aside those differences and focus on what we can accomplish together.”
Roberts’ portrait will be hung in the committee chambers next year.
Amy Bickel can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.