Farm Bill Payment Limits: Part 3

This post was cross-posted on the blog where we are participating in a series of farm bill blog posts.

In my last post, I wrote that our elected representatives create blatant loopholes within payment limits to cater to a small number of individuals. I also wrote that the majority of rural Americans - and farmers - want strict payment limits of the type embodied in the Dorgan-Grassley bill. And to speak the language of political junkies and policy wonks everywhere, there are polls to prove it.

In 2005, a Kellogg Foundation-sponsored poll conducted in Iowa, Kansas and Minnesota found clear preferences for a strict $250,000 cap on farm program payments, which is the proposed cap in the Dorgan-Grassley bill reintroduced two weeks ago. All three states are considered farm states, and both farmers and non-farmers were surveyed. You can find the poll here. A quote from the poll summary:

[By] more than a two-to-one margin (67 percent to 31 percent) voters in these states support limiting direct payments to single farms to no more than $250,000. Interestingly, support is higher among farm income households and Republicans than among voters as a whole.

Since farm income households certainly understand farm programs and their impact, one might assume that their higher support for strict subsidy limits is significant. Not only do voters in these states support strict payment limits, they are willing to take that policy preference into the voting booth:

a majority of voters in each state describe themselves as more likely to support a member who supports limiting direct payments to single farms to no more than $250,000 and at least a third describe themselves as "much more likely" to support such a member.

Going further, voters in these three states strongly endorse programs that create rural jobs, conservation programs, and nutrition programs:

Chart One

But what if you survey farmers only? And shouldn't more states be surveyed, including the South, the supposed home of vast enthusiasm for unlimited farm program checks?

Every time a farm bill rolls around, the Farm Foundation surveys agricultural producers in multiple states. This time they surveyed over 15,000 farmers and ranchers in 27 states, and they group results by state and region.

Continue reading the full post.

In Iowa, currently a politically key state, you find the following:

Chart Two

On a scale of 1-5, with 5 representing the strongest support, Iowa producers ranked "targeting support to small farms" at 3.94 and "Eliminate the Three-Entity Rule" (a key loophole in payment limits ) at 4.12 - both significantly higher than support for the payments themselves. Iowa producers ranked the importance of direct payments at 3.47, counter cyclical payments at 3.65 and loan deficiency payments at 3.75.

And while the Southern cotton and rice interests supposedly favor the glaring loopholes necessary for enormous subsidy checks, we can actually see this isn't true. For the entire Southern region surveyed (Alabama, Texas, North Carolina, Georgia, Florida) there is substantial support for eliminating the three-entity rule and eliminating unlimited commodity loan gains-two of the most-abused loopholes in farm program payment limits.

Chart Three

You can find the whole poll here (2MB PDF). It is a fascinating look at farmers and ranchers' preferences. To be objective, I should say some of the positions that the Center for Rural Affairs advocates are not viewed so favorably. But the consensus is clear on farm subsidy programs- close the loopholes and enforce a strict payment limit.

In fact, there is such a clear consensus that one wonders why you don't hear more of our elected representatives shouting from the rooftops for strict payment limits. Clearly this is an issue that both Republicans and Democrats agree on, and there is substantial political gold to be mined here. Moreover, when I look at these polls, I expect that all rural elected officials will respect the clear wishes of their constituents - or pay the price.

Not only that, but when I hear all this talk from both parties about how "we need to keep the big subsidies flowing so we can keep the rural vote," I want to scream. Yes, farm programs play an important role and they should not face wholesale elimination. And yes, rural voters and farmers understand that importance and will punish any representative who votes to simply cut or eliminate farm programs in a way that hurts all of rural America. But if anyone says that voting for payment limits will mean an election loss in the future, they are wrong.

Rural people understand better than anyone that we need reform, and payment limits is the place to start. Moreover, they understand that we should take the money saved and put it into rural development, conservation, value-added agriculture, and other programs that will create a future for all of rural America.

Maybe most importantly, they don't particularly care what party that elected official is from.

To put it simply, a significant number of the districts that changed party affiliation in the last election were rural districts. Issues that have a nearly 3 to 1 favorability among likely voters - Democrats and Republicans, farmers and non-farmers - are too important to be ignored. Regardless of party affiliation, incumbents and challengers that seize upon issues such as payment limits will find there is a lot of political hay to be made while the sun shines. The importance of this issue in Iowa and the importance of Iowa in the Presidential nomination and election process could make this an issue in the 2008 Presidential campaign as well, helping separate the wheat from the chaff, as it were.

Beyond the polls, the broader point is the lack of leadership surrounding the issue of payment limits, and issues of rural social and economic justice. Even among those who vote for payment limits, only a small number of politicians are willing to actually be public leaders on the issue. As you might guess, chief among that group is Senator Grassley of Iowa and Senator Dorgan of North Dakota. Not long ago, and not surprisingly, you could count Senator Wellstone of Minnesota as one of those leaders as well. To balance out the party affiliations mentioned here, add Senator Lugar of Indiana to the list. There are not many more. But I cannot emphasize enough that the payment limits issue is not a partisan one, and the lack of leadership has been exhibited in both parties.

That lack of leadership extends beyond the halls of Congress and into the countryside during campaign seasons. There is a clear opportunity for currently elected officials and future candidates to embrace these issues. And they would win. Unfortunately, too many members of Congress view a strict payment limit and other fundamental structural issues in agriculture with great trepidation. A few have become comfortable with the lobby that advocates for unlimited commodity program payments to the nation's largest farms - the Cotton Council, Rice Federation and the other usual suspects. Naively or opportunistically, many more have accepted the conventional wisdom that more federal money to farmers is the way to win in rural districts, irrespective of how the distribution of that money impacts the people and communities it is rhetorically positioned to help.

Rural people and farmers understand payment limits. They understand that it is better to invest scarce budget dollars in rural development, conservation, and new agricultural opportunities instead of sending out enormous subsidy checks. They understand the principles of fair and just farm programs. And they would vote for candidates who articulated those principles and, more importantly, a candidate who strongly supported policies that reflected those principles.

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