Chandler Keys, the National Cattlemen's Beef Association (NCBA) vice president for public policy, recently took time from his routine to talk with BEEF about his job and his insight into the cattle industry.
BEEF: How do you and your staff decide the issues you tackle on a day-to-day basis?
Keys: We operate on the policy set by NCBA's dues-paying membership. We don't operate on an island. But sometimes you have to interpret the policies. That's when we contact officers and members or check with the state affiliates and make collective decisions.
We'll give them advice and provide our opinions based on what we see happening here in Washington. We allow them to focus on the decision by helping them understand the implications of a course of action.
BEEF: What is your management style, and how do you and the D.C. staff work to achieve the objectives of this office?
Keys: It's simple. I hire people who are smarter than me — people who have strengths I don't have. We're able to do that because people understand that NCBA is a great place to work and can be a good jumping-off place for the next career move.
We believe it's always helpful to have a large group of people spread around town who are very loyal to you. Our cattlemen's “alumni” is a pretty formidable group and have become some of our best allies.
Beyond that, day to day, we're very deliberate about working on the cattle industry issues — we map them out regularly and delegate responsibilities. We don't just jump on things without knowing the pitfalls. But I'm not a micro-manager — I don't have time for that.
BEEF: Some people say you can be irascible and don't come across as the nicest guy around. Does this bother you?
Keys: Not really. I'm not paid to be nice. I'm not paid to ask people about their kids or to chitchat. I have a professional responsibility — to carry out the wants of the cattle industry and maneuver in Washington on their behalf.
When you're in this business, it's a combination of being cordial and having a reputation for being able to get things done. I don't spend a lot of time worrying if people like me.
BEEF: What do you say to NCBA critics about the relevance and importance of its political activities?
Keys: There is a mass of issues we work on. It's a balancing act. You have to be here every day figuring out what to use political capital on and what not to use it on.
It's hard for some people to comprehend how diverse this industry is. But through NCBA we can and do very regularly have dialog between the folks who disagree over the issues.
If you don't have that dialog with other producers, you don't get a chance to weigh the implications of a policy to the industry as a whole. If you think you can have a few people talking among themselves making the decisions, you're wrong.
BEEF: What would happen if someone pulled the plug on NCBA and the lights in this office went out?
Keys: Because power abhors a void, something would fill in to represent the largest segment of American agriculture. Maybe the feeders would get together and form an organization, or the marketing alliances would work on their own behalf. Maybe there'd be a new cow-calf organization. Or possibly a new overall purebred organization would come along.
Instead of having one entity back here working on the issues, you'd probably have several entities.
But if you look at these things historically, the synergy would force them to come together. Those entities would begin meeting on a regular basis, forming coalitions to fight the issues.
For a while they'd have different staffs, budgets and styles of political action. But in the name of overall efficiency and political clout, they'd probably morph back into something not terribly unlike what we have today. Eventually, this industry would recognize it needs one national entity that's a voice for all its segments.
NCBA was put together through trial and error over a 100-year period. Has it stayed the same? No. But it's never fallen apart and always kept a momentum for the wants and needs of cattle producers across the U.S.
The cattle industry is going to have a presence in Washington, D.C., no matter what. It could take on a lot of different forms, though.
BEEF: There's been a lot of rhetoric lately over the term “cattle” association versus “beef” association. Is the NCBA a cattle association or a beef association?
Keys: It's a cattle association. There's no question about it. But I'd tell every cattle producer in the country that every dime coming into this industry originates with the consumer.
Just ask anyone who's ever owned and raised an ostrich. Once they finished trading breeding stock, they realized there was no market for an end-product. And since ostriches don't make real good pets, that industry's now in the tank.
People who don't recognize that our money comes from selling beef are isolating themselves from reality. Show me how we can make money without having beef consumption, and I'll change my mind.
Some people think we're dominated by the packers. It's just not true. More than 60% of NCBA's policy board is made up of cow-calf producers, and more than another 20% are stockers and feeders. These folks have been chosen to be on that board by their state cattle and livestock associations.
Yes, there is minority representation by allied industries like the drug and feed companies, along with the packers and retailers. But there are obvious reasons to have those people in the tent when our membership is making policy decisions.
BEEF: In your opinion, what's the biggest cattle industry issue today?
Keys: The biggest philosophical debate is over marketing. There are two models.
One model is what we have today — where we let the markets evolve with as little government intervention as possible. There's a spectrum of failure and reward built into that model. But with it comes constant change and people who always push the envelope to get a bigger share of the profit that can come with free enterprise.
The other model is one where we regulate and manage for a more predictable outcome and make everybody as equal as we can. It tends to flatten out profit and limits the degrees of success and failure. The only entity that can accomplish that, however, is a central government.
BEEF: In the current debate, NCBA is criticized for its opposition to bringing more government into cattle marketing. Why the conservative approach?
Keys: Once you ask the government to get involved, it's really difficult to get the genie back into the bottle. The federal government is always very willing to regulate our industry. But remember that government is not an exact science. On top of that, markets are subject to a great deal of outside influences and unpredictable forces.
Then there's the fact that this is a democracy, and there are always going to be people who don't want what you want. So you have to give something to the other side.
You can't light the fuse and run out — you have stay in the room and make sure the laws of unintended consequences don't beat you at the end of the day.
Is that a conservative approach? Sure it is. But this tends to be a conservative industry, a cautious industry, especially on the regulatory side.
BEEF: Some people say international trade is our biggest issue. What about trade?
Keys: Once you get rid of the rhetoric over what's happening and what's not going to happen on trade, you can see it's not the big contentious issue some people make it out to be. You need to recognize this country isn't going to arbitrarily and capriciously cut off trade with the major countries exporting beef to us today. Why? Because those countries — Australia, New Zealand and Canada — are among our closest strategic allies.
NCBA is extremely engaged in trade issues. We just led a broad coalition of agricultural organizations in vehemently opposing a bilateral free trade agreement with Australia. But we won't support trade with any country that gives more access to U.S. beef markets than we gain in other markets.
People complain to us about the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). But if they'd educate themselves, they'd know NAFTA had nothing to do with the movement of live cattle — but it allowed Mexico to become a huge export market for U.S. beef. There were prohibitive tariffs on beef to Mexico before NAFTA — Australia was kicking our butt in that market.
We all have to recognize there's a real world economic order out there. We are going to have a World Trade Organization, and we are going to have a NAFTA. They aren't going to be put back in a jar — it's not going to happen.
BEEF: What can NCBA do — outside of asking for a more heavily regulated marketing structure — to help stabilize the economics and the future of this industry?
Keys: We work every day to make sure there's an infrastructure for the industry to stand on. We do that by closely watching issues related to things like food safety, animal health, environment, research, animal welfare, natural disasters, taxes and many more. We try to make sure there aren't big chasms out there that people can fall into. That's what NCBA is about.
As much as we'd like to do it, we can't work on policy that's going to benefit every individual cattle producer out there. I can't make sure everybody is going to be profitable and successful.
I know it's tough out there. But every small independent businessperson has a monkey on his back. If one or two things go wrong with their business plan, they know and understand they can fall flat on their face.
The reality is that small business people are always striving for more profit for themselves — looking for that next hit, that next deal. It's risky, but it's the difference between wage earners and entrepreneurs.
In a political sense, though, people need to think in terms of what is attainable. While engaging in issues in this town, you must have credible solutions to problems and use your political muscle to get them through.
This is a business of personalities and relationships. Your reputation goes a long way in this town. You can't cry “wolf” or always complain and never have a solution. People get tired of that.
People in Washington know NCBA is good for its word. And they know we'll follow through with what we say we're going to do.
About Chandler Keys
Outside of his position as the National Cattlemen's Beef Association's (NCBA) vice president for public policy, and the fact that his family has been in the cattle business since the 1600s, Chandler Keys' story is quite familiar.
His family's Maryland farm is home to a registered Angus herd dating back to 1936. The Keys have grown small grains and corn, raised thoroughbred horses and even had a small feedyard at one time.
His early years were active with 4-H and the American Junior Angus Association. At the height of his personal involvement in the cattle industry, he and his father had 200-some mother cows on their 3,500-acre farm.
Keys graduated with a humanities degree from the University of Maryland. After broadening his horizons in political science, history, philosophy and English, he returned to the farm for a year. In the fall of 1984, he landed a D.C. job lobbying for what was then the National Cattlemen's Association.
Keys worked his way up the ladder. In 1996 with the organizational merger that produced the NCBA, he became chief lobbyist. In that role, Keys, 42, maintains a steady tempo, working the halls of Congress, buttonholing White House politicos and keeping tabs on federal agencies.
As NCBA's political guru, he rides herd over one of Washington's highest-rated office staffs. With 22 cattle industry experts and support personnel, Keys connects the nation's cattle producers with the political mass in the nation's capital.