Dorgan can end hypocrisyBy Chuck Hassebrook,
Published Wednesday, May 02, 2007
Democratic congressional candidates scour the countryside for votes by proclaiming themselves the champion of the family farmer and little guy. Now they control both houses of Congress. It’s time for them to put up or shut up by addressing the long-festering need for limiting farm subsidies to mega farms in the 2007 farm bill.
Rural politicians of both parties have long waxed eloquent about saving family farms while passing farm programs that subsidize their demise – subsidize mega farms to drive their neighbors out of business. The hypocrisy has been bipartisan.
North Dakota Sen. Byron Dorgan is in a unique position to break the mold and deliver a profound victory for rural America – if he holds firm to his convictions. To date, he has provided the strongest leadership among Democrats.
Northern representatives have too often given lip service to limits on mega farm payments, while Southerners have opposed them in deference to large cotton and rice interests. In the end, enough payment limitation supporters have given in for big farm interests to win. In conceding, they typically justify unlimited payments as an evil necessary to maintain the farm coalition and get more money sooner for farm payments.
That is a profound mistake. The root cause of family farm decline is not insufficient government payments. The root problem is that both markets and government policy are biased toward bigness.
The playing field is not level. Those controlling large amounts of assets can use their advantage to bid land away from small and beginning farmers. To make matters worse, mega farms have the economic power to gain volume premiums for their products and discounts on their purchases.
The solution is to balance the playing field with government policies that offset the tendency for wealth and economic power to concentrate in the hands of a small elite. Unless public policy provides that counter balance, ordinary people are denied the opportunity to run their own farms and free enterprise in agriculture is destroyed.
But today government policy reinforces, rather than offsets, the tendency toward economic concentration. Unlimited farm programs are the premier example. They are destroying family farming.
That will change only when elected leaders demonstrate the spine to fight as hard for payment limitations as large farm interests fight against them. Dorgan is critical.
He must reintroduce his earlier legislation that closed loopholes and made the paper limits on farm payments real. Most critical is a firm $40,000 limit on direct payments. Direct payments are the only payments likely to be made in North Dakota for the foreseeable future.
A $40,000 limit on direct payments would affect only the largest
1 percent of North Dakota farms – enough to strengthen family farms and rural communities while protecting free enterprise. It would leave mega farms free to keep buying and renting more farms. But they would have to use their own dollars rather than taxpayer dollars.
There is a second benefit to a firm limit. It would free up scarce federal dollars to invest in small-business development, value-added agriculture, beginning farmer programs and other initiatives that create a future in rural America.
It can happen. But it will happen only if Sen. Dorgan leads Democrats in blocking passage of yet another farm bill that destroys family farming while failing to invest in our future.
The new farm bill will be the first in more than three decades to be developed by a Democratic Congress. The party must decide where it stands. Will it govern like it campaigns as the champion of the little guy? Or, will it engage in politics as usual by talking a good line but, in the end, lining the pockets of powerful interests?
Hassebrook is executive director of the Center for Rural Affairs of Lyons, Neb.