By Scott Wong
He may be soft-spoken, but Rep. Bob Gibbs isn't shy about telling the regulation-happy Environmental Protection Agency to back off. And he hasn't held back in telling the Army Corps of Engineers it needs to speed up studies and approvals of port dredgings, dams and other crucial water projects.
But don't get him wrong: The Ohio Republican considers himself a fan of at least one federal agency.
During the mid-1990s, the longtime hog farmer held a seat on the wonky Holmes County Soil and Water Conservation District. There, he worked closely with federal officials from the Agriculture Department's Natural Resources Conservation Service, an agency created during the Dust Bowl era that helps farmers protect and care for their land and water.
Federal employees worked alongside local officials in the same Holmes County building.
"It's not a program where they come out with a hammer and beat you over the head. They try to work with farmers in a cooperative manner," Gibbs said in his office on the third floor of the Cannon House Office Building. "It's a federal, state and county partnership."
Such a partnership could serve as a model for the Environmental Protection Agency and Army Corps, he said, two agencies overseen by the House Transportation Committee's water and environment panel. Gibbs has chaired the subcommittee since he arrived in Congress in January 2011.
Gibbs, 58, spent more than three decades running his 200-acre Hidden Hollow Farms, work that he said prepared him well for his chairmanship. Agriculture, he notes, strengthens the environment and water quality.
He raised about 10,000 hogs a year -- a farrow-to-finish operation -- but later turned to corn and soybeans, and saw firsthand how federal policies and regulations affected a small business like his own, about 70 miles south of Cleveland.
"A one-size-fits-all policy from Washington, D.C., is just not workable," said Gibbs, who is also a member of the Agriculture Committee. "There are things going on all around the country in each locale -- in streams, rivers and water bodies -- so you need to be able to go into those areas and look at the biology, the pH, the sunlight, and make a determination as to what's the best solution."
Gibbs, a former Ohio Farm Bureau Federation president who went on to serve eight years in the Ohio statehouse, believes he's the only former hog farmer in Congress today.
But he's glad there are others like him on Capitol Hill: Rep. Stephen Fincher (R-Tenn.) grows cotton and other crops, while Rep. Jeff Denham (R-Calif.) is an almond farmer. Rep. Marlin Stutzman (R-Ind.) is a fourth-generation farmer.
"We're practical people," Gibbs said.
This year, he's turned much of his attention to the massive water policy and infrastructure bill working its way through Congress. He's worked not only on getting his committee members up to speed on the Water Resources Development Act but also on raising awareness of often-overlooked maritime issues.
A bridge collapse generates big headlines. But if a lock fails on the Mississippi River, it won't receive the same attention -- even though tons of cargo worth millions of dollars could be held up.
Delays at the Olmsted Locks and Dam Project have been so bad that Gibbs took a trip to the Illinois-Kentucky border to see what was taking so long. Congress authorized the project along the Ohio River in 1988. Two locks have been completed, but the dam won't be finished until possibly 2020.
And with each passing year, the project's price continues to rise.
Gibbs and many other water bill backers want to enact reforms that streamline and expedite the Army Corps' review and approval process for projects. With federal dollars scarce these days, tackling the costly delays should be a priority, he said.
"It takes seven years to get a chief's report [recommendation], and it takes another 10 years before the first backhoe starts," Gibbs said. "Hopefully, we can change that culture in the Corps."