Farm Bill 2013: Is This Big Agriculture's Last Gasp?

The farm bill's original failure to pass Congress (it has since been approved by the House without food-stamp aid) has largely been viewed in light of immigration reform and congressional dysfunction, but it also underlies another specter: the weakening farm lobby. Since our nation’s founding, farmers (originally slave-owners) have had an unequal voice. The Senate, for instance, is made up of two representatives from every state, no matter how large or small. The Electoral College was designed to give small states a voice, and with the development of primaries, farm states like Iowa have become more and more important.

Even Republicans, the so-called party against government waste, have traditionally been afraid to touch farm subsidies (just food stamps!). Since Reagan, the Republican Party has been the party of wealth. Reagan happily doled out tax cuts along with spending cuts, but suspiciously, the tax cuts only went to rich people and the spending cuts only hurt poor people. Similarly, Bush’s tax cuts for the rich turned a projected $5 trillion surplus to a $5 trillion deficit, which Republicans like Paul Ryan argue should be paid for by, you guessed it: cutting Medicaid.

So here’s a quiz. If the farm bill contains huge subsidies for rich farmers (like Bon Jovi) and food stamps to protect poor people, which half will the Republicans cut? Answer: One of the most effective anti-poverty programs in history. Seriously.

Now that I’m done trolling the PolicyMic conservatives, let’s address the real meat of the story here — the farm lobby. The failure of the farm bill indicates that the great hydra agriculture lobby may have only a few ugly heads left to rear.

What’s the problem with the farm lobby? Don’t farmers need representation too? Don’t farm subsidies help keep the food market stable? Yes and yes. But, American farm policy may be one of the most incoherently developed and rigidly path-dependent systems in the world. P.J. O’Rourke once noted, “Farm policy can be explained. What it can't be is believed."

Many of us don’t remember when farming was a killer lobby, able to fight off any representative who questioned the billions funnelled to them. In a supposedly “free-market” country, our ag policy is run like Russia during central planning. Huge tariffs protect the American sugar manufactures from Brazilian competition, to the tune of $3.5 billion a year. That also drives up the demand for high-fructose corn syrup, giving us something to do with the corn we massively overproduce.

The big story for the farm bill is that the U.S. government is trimming direct payments and replacing them with an expanded crop insurance program. Crop insurance protects farmers from dramatic drops in the price of crops, but the premiums rarely add up to the payouts. Last year, the crop insurance program paid out $17 billion, three-quarters of which was paid for by Uncle Sam. As any economist knows, such programs (private gain with public risk) encourage moral hazard, and the result is that farmers have taken more risk “by farming on flood plains or steep hills.” The crop insurance program overwhelmingly helps wealthier farmers, but that fact that the lobby couldn’t keep direct payments indicates a level of atrophy.

There are other indications of the weakening farm lobby. For instance, last year, the U.S. was hit by its worst drought in 50 years, which was likely exacerbated by climate change. Farmers' groups sought a bill that would provide relief, but while the bill made it out of committee, it was never brought to a vote on the House floor.

Of course, the grand narrative of the bill (i.e. that the Republicans in the House are insane) is also accurate. They’re clearly crazy-level congresso-terrorists, something data showed us long ago and that other conservatives have been hammering them for.  The chaos surrounding the farm bill is certainly a reminder that this is the most polarized Congress in a long time, and a harbinger of more inaction (immigration, student loans, tax reform). But it’s also a reminder that while we consume more food, few, if any of us remain attached to nature and very few of us farm. It’s an indication that what used to be a broadly bipartisan issue has now become an area for savage political fighting. That will have increasing political implications in the years to come.

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Sean McElwee

Sean McElwee is a Research Associate at Demos.

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