WASHINGTON — Could the farm bill give the new Democratic Congress a chance for dramatic reform — and perhaps even a way to collaborate with President Bush?
It's hard to believe. Arcane, incredibly complex, the New Deal-born system of targeted subsidies, $15 billion worth last year, is regularly pushed through Congress by farm region legislators in the thrall of big commodity farmers (chiefly in corn, rice, cotton, wheat and soybeans).
Sixty percent of America's farmers and ranchers get nothing from the program. And virtually none of the benefits go to farms producing the vegetables and fruits the Agriculture Department's own "food pyramid" says we should be emphasizing for our health.
Still, urban legislators have mindlessly gone along with past farm bills, especially fearful of loss of support for food stamps (also authorized in the farm bill) if they don't. And President Bush, after first supporting major subsidy cutbacks in 2002, backed down under political pressure from Southern cotton interests.
Could that change in 2007? Most farm economists expect the reauthorization, which Congress has to pass this year, will mirror the same-old subsidies. But not Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-Ore). He's urging the Democratic House leadership to take on the challenge of major farm bill reform, insisting it's just as important as new energy legislation and "may have more impact, dollar for dollar, acre for acre, than the transportation bill."
A bipartisan accord with President Bush on farm reform is possible, Blumenauer said last week: "Now the president is in a different situation (from 2002). It's all about legacy now."
There's a strong parallel, Jonathan Rauch suggests in National Journal, to 1996 when a newly-elected Republican Congress ended welfare as we knew it and got a Democratic president, Bill Clinton, to agree. Just as the Republicans back then identified themselves with reform of an archaic, dependency-forming New Deal-born program, Rauch notes the Democrats now have a chance to earn their reformist spurs by ending farm welfare as we know it, and to get a president of the opposite party to sign the bill.
If any government program has ever turned perversely on its roots, the farm program is it. Begun in New Deal days to protect the country's millions of small farm producers against sudden reversals and economic ruin, it's now tilted heavily to farmers producing the major row crops in a narrow band of states ranging from Texas to Minnesota and North Dakota.
A few progressive features have crept into the farm program — for example the Conservation Security Program to reward farmers for practices that protect soils, wildlife and water supplies. But, reports the American Farmland Trust, such efforts are "woefully underfunded," with three of four farm applications rejected.
Today's big farm operators, receiving the lion's share of subsidies, use computers and other modern technologies to cut labor, time and costs. And they frequently use their government payments to buy more land, forcing up land prices beyond the reach of small- and medium-sized farms, not to mention young farmers anxious to start out.
In sum, federal agriculture policies may well have accelerated, not slowed, the disappearance of farms across America — from 5.8 million in 1948 to 2.1 million at latest count. And they undermine rural communities' economies and culture. Farm counties experiencing the most dramatic population and job losses are precisely those most dependent on subsidies, according to a 2005 study by the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City.
The ill effects even spread into global trade, as the price-depressing impact of U.S. farm subsidies robs desperately poor developing-world farmers nations of potential markets.
The greatest number of farm bill dollars flow to the big producers protected by the combined lobbying forces of American Farm Bureau Federation, the National Cotton Council, rural bankers, real estate operators and tractor dealers. Many of the farm bloc's lobbyists are former lawmakers or congressional aides.
But an array of new players is now demanding fundamental change. They range from the American Farmland Trust to Bread for the World, the Environmental Defense Fund to the Northeast-Midwest Institute. Working together through a new Farm and Food Policy Project that includes dozens of farm, rural, health and religious groups, they plan to announce a full reform agenda on Jan. 22.
Some major farm interests will also be pushing for change, says Jimmy Daukas of the American Farmland Trust — a potential coaltion fruit, vegetable and nut producers who now receive zero benefits; ranchers; the little-helped farm interests of California, Northeast and Mid-Atlantic; corn producers open to new approaches; even some reform voices in the top farmbelt states.
Another potentially big factor: pressure from Republican budget hawks to reduce out-of-control federal deficits.
Still, unless both the new leaders on Capitol Hill and the Bush White House insist on serious farm bill reform, it's not likely to happen. That's why Blumenauer's call for bipartisan teamwork is so critical.