Spending cuts trump farm subsidies for many voters


February 15th, 2012 by Ric Hanson

WASHINGTON (AP) — Promoting farm subsidies was once a no-brainer for rural members of Congress seeking re-election. This year, it’s a bit trickier. As lawmakers wade cautiously into writing the next five-year farm bill, agribusiness and farmers’ lobbyists are preparing for the worst. With little appetite for spending on Capitol Hill, subsidy cuts in the billions of dollars are on the table as rural voters also cry out for less government. It doesn’t help that farm business is booming. “What’s different this time is we have very strong commodity prices,” says Roger Johnson, president of the National Farmers Union. “And that is generally not a really good time to write a farm bill because everyone who is projecting the future says, ‘Oh, this is going to last forever.'”

Farm bills in 2002 and 2008 also were driven by rural election-year politics. Lawmakers, particularly in the Senate, curried favor with farm interests in their states by slipping their priorities into the bills. Taking care of everyone’s needs ensured passage and subsidies remained almost untouched. But this year, many of farmers’ traditional allies are just as concerned, if not more concerned, about voters’ calls for less spending. Sen. Pat Roberts, senior Republican on the Senate Agriculture Committee and a veteran of many farm bills, says his constituents aren’t asking about farm subsidies as much as they used to. He says he gets more questions about government regulations that farmers see as burdensome. Traditional farm issues and the impact of farm policy have gotten somewhat lost. “I don’t think most people who run for office realize there is still a significant farm vote,” he says.

Nowhere was that more clear than in Iowa, where presidential candidates have wooed farm country for decades. Several of the contenders in the Iowa caucuses actually spoke out against corn-based ethanol, a position unthinkable in the past. Farm-state members have already said they will support eliminating some subsidies. Last fall, the heads of the House and Senate agriculture committees — Republican Rep. Frank Lucas of Oklahoma and Democratic Sen. Debbie Stabenow of Michigan — negotiated a farm bill that cut $23 billion from agriculture and nutrition programs, hoping to piggyback it on the budget-cutting supercommittee’s bill. When the supercommittee fizzled, so did their hopes for a speedy farm bill.

This year, they are starting over with more input from other agriculture committee members. But direct payments, a type of subsidy paid without regard to crop price or crop yield and costing taxpayers about $5 billion a year, are still a top target as the Senate Agriculture Committee opens hearings on the legislation Wednesday. That was cemented by President Barack Obama’s call to eliminate them in his budget proposal Monday, which put forth a $32 billion cut in farm programs. That’s a strong contrast from 2008, when Obama supported the last farm bill while he was campaigning for president. That legislation was far more generous — even raising some subsidies — than the bill Congress is weighing this year.