Candidates for the Texas 19th Congressional District seat sparred, sometimes spiritedly, over agricultural issues, the value of experience in the U.S. House of Representatives’ seniority system, Social Security, and education, among other topics, during the second of two debates last week in Abilene.

Randy Neugebauer, the 19th District incumbent, and Charlie Stenholm, incumbent in the 17th District, are battling each other in a heated campaign in the new 19th, created last winter when the Texas legislature redrew districts in a hotly disputed action that continues to draw controversy. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled recently that a lower court must reconsider an earlier decision to uphold the redistricting plan.

That will not happen before the election, however, so one of the two incumbents will lose his seat in the next Congress. The campaign has been intense and the debates considered crucial as each candidate, along with Libertarian Party candidate Richard Peterson, try to shore up support in a tight race.

Stenholm insists that his 26 years of service in the House and his position as ranking member on the Agriculture Committee will be invaluable as farm state legislators and various agricultural associations try to hold onto programs and funding enacted in the Farm Security and Rural Investment Act of 2002.

Neugebauer claims his experience as a businessman, entrepreneur, and developer, along with access to House leadership give him an advantage.

Peterson supports more tax cuts, streamlining government and reducing federal spending for education, agriculture and other programs.

Neugebauer got the first shot at agricultural issues during the Abilene debate, held at McMurry State University, with a question challenging him on exposing the 2002 farm law to arbitrary cuts with his recently passed and signed disaster relief bill. Critics of that legislation claim that taking some $3 billion out of conservation funds opens the farm bill to further incursions.

Neugebauer used the question to promote his crop insurance proposals.

“I am adamant that we do not have a good crop insurance program,” he said. “Farmers depend on ad hoc disaster relief programs. I have introduced a bill that will give farmers more coverage and will preclude the need (for disaster relief measures) in the future.”

Neugebauer also said the offset included in his disaster relief bill was necessary because, “it was apparent that the Senate would not pass (the bill) without offsets. I worked with the ag committee leadership to find a way to get disaster relief.”

Neugebauer said taking funds from the conservation program did not reopen the farm bill.

Stenholm disagreed.

“The farm bill has been reopened,” he said, “and the next Congress will rue the day. It was not necessary to reopen the farm bill.”

Stenholm said Neugebauer’s “lack of understanding of the farm bill,” played a role in the decision to provide offsets from conservation funds included in the 2002 law. “We’ve taken $3 billion out of the program that we will need,” he said.

Stenholm insisted that a bill he proposed would have passed. “We had the votes and then Tom DeLay (Texas Congressman from Sugarland) sent word that the bill was not acceptable without offsets.

Peterson said the relief bill was largely unnecessary. “The ones who really needed the money last year are probably bankrupt,” he said. “The bill is an example of election year spending piled on top of hurricane relief.”

He said farmers “have to prepare for bad years. This is an after-the-fact giveaway.”

Stenholm and Neugebauer emphasized their support for agriculture during a post-debate press conference.

“Agriculture faces some serious challenges in the next few years,” Stenholm said. “That’s why I decided to run again.” He said the experience of the last 26 years and his ability to work across party lines, “as I did with Larry Combest to put the 2002 farm bill together” should answer the question of “who is best to represent agriculture.”

Neugebauer said trade issues will be critical for agriculture. “I’m not interested in free trade but fair trade,” he said “We must have better access to markets, and we must have a level playing field. Many countries have subsidies 50 percent to 60 percent higher than ours. We just want a fair deal.”

Candidates differed on Social Security as well.

Peterson, who has authored a book on the Social Security program, said the system demands revamping and proposed raising retirement age and using some privatized savings to allow younger workers to invest on their own.

“We don’t want to cut benefits to people already in the program,” he said, “but we need to announce soon that we will raise the retirement age. We have to give people time to prepare.”

He said the big weakness of Social Security is that people are living longer and healthier lives than was the case when the program was designed.

Stenholm agrees that Social Security demands change.

“I introduced a bill nine years ago and re-introduced it and re-introduced it again. We’ve been waiting for bi-partisan efforts to fix Social Security, and I was pleased to hear President Bush express the need for a bi-partisan support. We’ve got to get serious about it.”

Neugebauer said the first priority is to keep promises to Social Security recipients and then “come up with a better system. We should not tax Social Security.”

Neugebauer said he is opposed to raising payroll taxes to shore up the program. “And I am opposed to increasing the retirement age but I like (individual) retirement accounts.”

The candidates each weighed in on education, especially the No Child Left Behind program. Stenholm had first crack at the question.

“I supported No Child Left Behind,” he said. “But I have talked to no school board member, no superintendent, no principal and no teacher who believe it is a good idea for (the government) to tell schools what they have to do without providing funding. A federal mandate without funds creates problems for teachers and ultimately for students, which is the main issue.”

Neugebauer said his experience with school officials has been more positive and said funding problems resulted because money was not being requested.

Peterson said the federal government should not provide funding for schools except for materials to evaluate school programs.

“I don’t see where the federal government is responsible for state funding,” he said.

Health care offered another source of differences among the three candidates.

“There is nothing wrong with citizens being able to buy into the same insurance program that U.S. Representatives and Senators get,” Stenholm said. “We should spend time discussing the possibility and putting a program together.”

He said health care costs and affordability represent “a major problem, even into the middle class. Unfortunately, the Congress has not done much to address the problem.”

Neugebauer said some 40 million citizens have no health care insurance and said rural health care is a “serious issue.” He said Congress must devise “common sense ways to reduce health care costs.”

He said the House had worked hard on health care and that bills had been introduced but not passed.

Peterson said Congress has a good health care plan and favors individuals being able to buy in. “The problem is that some are not able to because they are unemployed. We need to devise a system where health care costs are uniform so people have choices.”

Neugebauer responded to a question on transportation legislation stalled in Congress. “If we don’t catch up on transportation issues, we will (damage) our ability to compete in a global economy.”

“We need (improved) transportation with good bridges and infrastructure,” Peterson said. “But the trouble with transportation bills is that they all include a lot of pork barrel spending.”

“The key word in the question is stalled,” Stenholm said. The bill has not gotten out of conference, he said, because of partisan politics

All three candidates pledged to work with local leaders to maintain viability of Dyess Air Base in Abilene.

In closing remarks Neugebauer said his experience has been of a different sort than Stenholm’s. “I haven’t spent my life running for office but in business,” he said. “I am one of a lot of newcomers to Washington, D.C., who are experienced problem solvers.”

He said critical goals will be to protect the farm bill and natural resources and to support President Bush.

Stenholm said a main priority should be to bring fiscal responsibility back to government. “We have just reached our credit card limit,” he said.

He also said a number of important agricultural issues will come up in the next Congress and that with his seniority on the House Agriculture Committee, “No bill will get to the president without my signature. And a one-or two-term congressman can’t do a thing.”

Peterson, who views himself as a long shot to win but insists if elected will be qualified to serve, said voters should demand that main party candidates pledge to rework the Patriot Act to eliminate unnecessary limits on civil liberties. He also suggested that voters ask candidates to support a flat tax and to “do away with estate taxes.”

e-mail: rsmith@primediabusiness.com