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Hastert touts legislative benefits

By Matthew DeFour
July 19, 2005

SANDWICH The corn-shaped lapel pin Big Rock Township farmer Steve Ruh wears on his lobbying trips to Washington lets congressmen know he has a lot of political clout as director of the Illinois Corn Growers Association.

Then they find out his next-door neighbor is House Speaker Dennis Hastert.

"That's the trump card," Ruh said. "Even though farmers are less than 2 percent of the population, our voice is really strong."

Friday evening, Ruh attended Hastert's 18th annual Hastert for Congress Ag Picnic at the Sandwich Fairgrounds, where Hastert touted three major legislative initiatives he expects to pass before the August recess.

"We're trying to create markets for our products," said Hastert, who empathized with farmers experiencing a drought season. He described his own corn crop as looking like pineapple fields.

Hastert said he expects the president to sign a six-year transportation bill this month. The speaker told reporters the final version of the bill will include the same funding provisions as the original proposal, including money for the Prairie Parkway project.

He also expects to pass an energy bill that is expected to increase ethanol consumption by 8 billion gallons by 2012.

The Central American Free Trade Agreement, which would open up markets worth $32 billion in trade and representing 44 million consumers, is expected to come up for a vote in the House in the next two weeks.

Hastert said the agreement would provide $1.5 billion of new exports for farmers, though it faces some political wrangling in the House from Democrats and some Republicans.

For Ruh, the three bills represent 15 years of lobbying efforts on behalf of Illinois farmers.

Hastert's honorary guest was recently appointed U.S. Trade Representative Rob Portman, who connected the legislation to local agribusiness, noting that one in three acres of crops is exported and one in four acres of corn is used for ethanol.

"This area benefits very much from the trade we have, but it can benefit more," Portman said.

Guest speakers in previous years have included Mississippi Gov. Haley Barber, Nebraska Congressman Tom Osborne and U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Ann Veneman.

Portman was winding up two weeks of trade negotiations in China, the European Union and London, where he witnessed the British resolve to fight terrorism in the wake of recent bombings.

"They said these terrorists have no regard for human life, and they will not defeat us," Portman told the crowd of 1,500 Republicans who paid $25 to attend the annual campaign picnic.

Shaking hands in the crowd was a slate of potential Republican gubernatorial candidates, including Aurora dairy magnate Jim Oberweis, State Sens. Steve Rauschenberger and Bill Brady, U.S. Rep. Ray Lahood, and DuPage County State's Attorney Joe Birkett.

Though Hastert has gained popularity and prestige in Washington, the picnic has cost the same for the last 10 years and remains a touchstone for his largely agricultural constituents.

"This is an important event for the speaker because he wants to make sure everyone out in the district can get a chance to attend," spokesman Brad Hahn said. "It kind of takes a step back in time."

For farmers like Minooka resident Hank Cryder, the event was an opportunity to see the influence agriculture still has despite the encroachment of urban development.

Cryder has been lucky growing wheat during this dry season, but he's sold three 160-acre parcels to developers in Kendall County, the second-fastest-growing county in the country.

"We like to be up to speed on what's happening," Cryder said. "And we like to think that we have some impact."

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