Champion on Capitol Hill

ASA Chief Lobbyist Has Spent Career Promoting Agriculture

Chris Clayton
By  Chris Clayton , DTN Ag Policy Editor
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John Gordley has worked four decades on farm policy matters for crops such as soybeans, canola and wheat. (Progressive Farmer photo by Michael Geissinger)

WASHINGTON (DTN) -- Not many people get into the weeds over whether farm subsidies should be tied to what a farm is growing right now or what a farm has grown in the past.

Still, John Gordley, chief lobbyist for the American Soybean Association (ASA), jokes he "wears a few scars" over the fight in the 2014 farm bill. "It was a big deal for us," he explains.

The soybean group argued that the growth of soybean planting during the past two decades is partly due to policies ensuring government payments aren't linked to what a farmer decides to plant that spring. "Decoupling" farm programs means crop farmers will be more likely to plant a crop for a strong market than plant one that might have a weaker price but a higher likelihood of a larger government payment.

House ag leaders championed recoupling payments to production for the Price Loss Coverage program, but members of the Senate Ag Committee from both parties stuck with the argument that such a shift in policy would lead back to farmers planting for farm programs. Recoupling government payments can distort planting decisions and, thus, lead to another potential World Trade Organization case. Former Senate Ag Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., wouldn't budge, nor would Sen. Mike Johanns, R-Neb., a former agriculture secretary.

"Were it not for the remarkable toughness and clear-headed thinking on the part of Sen. Stabenow, we would not have prevailed," Gordley said. "She got the House to agree to go back to the decoupling option."

UNWANTED ATTENTION

While Gordley found himself in another lobbying scrum with other aggies, at least this time around, he didn't have to endure a congressional hearing called specifically to rebuke him. After the 1996 farm bill, Gordley was at the center of a hearing led by a couple of congressmen who didn't get their way. They wanted to talk about the soybean association's "hired gun." ASA was going to get a bad reputation on the Hill if they didn't get rid of him.

As Gordley notes in his office a few blocks east of Capitol Hill, he was somewhat exasperated by the attack. "That was the only time someone has called me a liar in public," he said. "The hearing was all about me."

Despite the public flogging nearly two decades ago, Gordley remains a quiet, low-key presence in the back of the room when soybean farmers get together to talk about policy. His demeanor could be more associated with a laid-back history professor than a successful lobbyist, but Gordley encapsulates a lot of what people don't see in the stereotypical view of a Capitol Hill insider. Getting policy right for your people also leads to those battle scars.

"You don't have to go looking for trouble in this business," Gordley said. "You don't have to go out of your way to make enemies."

NOT HIS FIRST CHOICE

John Gordley, 66, probably has his mother-in-law and his wife's Kansas roots to thank for his nearly four decades of work in farm policy for crops such as soybeans, canola and wheat.

Gordley grew up moving around with a dad in the oil business working for Standard Oil Co. in Indiana and Illinois, just outside of Chicago. He went to college in Grinnell, Iowa, mainly because of family ties to the school. Gordley was a history major and saw himself as a teacher. At college, John also met his future wife, Susie, who was from Nickerson, Kan. John recalls his future Kansas mother-in-law didn't really take a shine to him. "Her mother kind of discouraged us, because she didn't think this guy from the suburbs would want to go out and live in the middle of Kansas," Gordley notes.

She was right. John and Susie went east, to Boston, where John got a master's degree in history from Boston College. The Gordleys were looking for work in 1973 when they both got an opportunity to teach at an American school in Alexandria, Egypt. They arrived right before the Yom Kippur War broke out but stayed in Egypt for two years. John learned along the way that he didn't have the knack for teaching.

Still, never doubt the support of a mother-in-law. She had heard about a job opening at Great Plains Wheat Market Development Association. Susie's Kansas ties and his time in Egypt helped John land a job as an African market specialist for Great Plains Wheat. The group wanted someone to help sell U.S. wheat in places like Morocco and Senegal.

Gordley spent the late 1970s working for U.S. wheat growers jet-setting across Northern Africa and the Middle East in planes with eight times the mileage on them as a standard U.S. plane. The pilots looked a little ancient, as well, and fellow passengers took liberty with the interpretation of carry-on items. "They would come wandering down the aisle with chickens in boxes and put them in the overhead racks. It gets to the point of saying, 'You know, I don't think I need to do this anymore.' It was a trip," Gordley said. "I got my wanderlust out of my system after about 3½ years."

LEVERAGING EXPERTISE

After returning to the states, Gordley believed he might be able to take his wheat and export market experience into the policy arena. Those Kansas ties helped again when then-Sen. Bob Dole, R-Kan., stuck his head in the door during a job interview long enough to learn Susie's hometown. So Gordley became an ag liaison for the Kansas Republican during the height of the Russian wheat embargo. Gordley wrote letters to President Reagan's staff and cabinet calling on the president to lift the embargo. He also became the guy Kansas farmers would take their issues to when trying to explain a problem to the senator.

"When Dole would take me out to town meetings to talk about the deficit and that kind of stuff, he would introduce me and say, 'Farmers, talk to Gordley. His wife's from Nickerson.' He would never talk about where I was from."

In Gordley's office still hangs an article from a Kansas newspaper, "Dole Salutes Man Behind Farm Bill," in which Dole praises Gordley's work on the 1985 farm bill.

In 1987, Gordley stepped into the lobbying world by opening Gordley Associates.

Deputy Secretary of Agriculture Krysta Harden, a former staffer for Gordley Associates, notes Gordley remained close to Dole but was always respectful of his relationship with the former Senate majority leader. Given the demands on a Senate leader's time, Harden said Dole knew Gordley wouldn't approach him for help unless the issue was critical for farmers.

"That always impressed me," Harden said. "When he did go talk to Sen. Dole, and it was rare, it was usually for sunflowers, if I remember correctly. If it was something he really needed, it was doable, and it was something the senator would want to help with."

Harden came to work for Gordley in the 1990s as both a Southerner and a Democrat. Harden said Gordley always gave her a lot of latitude to work on a particular issue. One thing she took away from her time at Gordley Associates was the importance of not promising the world to clients.

"There's a tendency with clients to kind of promise everything and then worry about how you were going to get it done," Harden said. "John was always so straightforward and frank with clients. It was underpromise, overdeliver."

OILSEEDS PROMOTION

Gordley had not been lobbying long and didn't have many clients when he began working with the newly formed U.S. Canola Association. Idaho farmer Joe Anderson was an original board member and the group's first government-relations chairman.

"I'm guessing, knowing John, he doesn't leave much to chance," Anderson said. "He had done some homework and found that of the folks on his board at that time, that I was the only one who had some on-the-ground experience with lobbying."

Gordley's task in early 1990 was to help get federal program support for farmers growing those minor oilseeds, such as canola. That would help achieve an objective of the U.S. Canola Association to expand crop acreage. In 1990, canola might have had 60,000 acres planted. The crop was so small USDA didn't track acreage totals. Gordley knew if he was going to have to get federal programs for minor oilseeds, he also was going to have to work with the soybean growers. Gordley was working for that small group of canola farmers, but, by default, he was also working for other oilseeds. At the time, soybean farmers weren't that interested in helping other oilseeds compete for acres. Still, the 1990 farm bill included marketing loans for a broad array of oilseeds, including soybean crops.

"If something didn't get done for soybeans, there was no way something was going to happen for canola," Anderson said. "He got them a marketing loan even though they didn't ask for it. So some of the soybean growers recognized what he had done for them."

The soybean industry earlier had a different mindset toward program policy and had avoided having soybeans move in that direction. Yet as acres grew, it became clear that soybeans needed a safety net. Harden notes that Gordley helped create an umbrella for farmers growing oilseeds to show how they could help each other. "It was a different way of thinking, especially for those smaller guys who felt like they were competing against soybeans," Harden said.

Within a few years, the ASA closed its office and hired Gordley to handle its affairs in D.C.

TRAIT INTRODUCTIONS

By the mid-1990s, Gordley was working heavily with the soybean industry to get its first biotech regulatory approval. Everything was new, and there were a lot of hurdles. USDA, EPA, trade associations, farmers and seed companies were all involved trying to sort out the process. Gordley became one of the first lobbyists to learn all of the regulatory hoops involved with biotech crops.

"He's one of the country's foremost experts in my mind on regulatory aspects surrounding genetic modification," Anderson said.

ASA likes to keep Gordley in D.C., but he and Susie still love to travel, and the couple frequently uses free time to see the world. Those trips also can get Gordley refocused on policy. A tour last year down the Mekong River, in Vietnam, got Gordley thinking about ways American agriculture could help drive initiatives to grow farm production in poor, underdeveloped countries.

He was troubled by the number of farm families literally living hand to mouth. They had no income and relied almost exclusively on the rice they grew and fish they farmed. "I started focusing on the fact we are so far behind in feeding the world by 2050," Gordley said.

The U.S. and a few other competitors likely can't grow enough crops to feed the growing population that could reach 9.6 billion people by 2050. "We need to help small countries that can't feed themselves to increase their own production," he said.

Thus, Gordley has gone to work trying to get legislation to help further agricultural development in the poorest countries. He acknowledges it may be a hard sell to grower groups to tell them to help small farmers in other countries grow more crops and increase their yields. He wants to get more farmers to visit those regions and see the difficulties their farmer brethren face in parts of Asia and Africa.

"We have got the expertise to help those people out," Gordley said. "We are either going to feed them, or they are going to have to feed themselves."

Chris Clayton can be reached at chris.clayton@dtn.com

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(AG/BAS)

Chris Clayton