By Dan Morgan- Dan is a special correspondent of The Washington Post and a Transatlantic Fellow at the German Marshall Fund of the United States. “Analysis from Washington” is posted exclusively at FarmPolicy.com.
House Agriculture Committee Chairman Collin Peterson (D-Minn.) has spent his 16-year House career working closely with Republicans. He’s against abortion, gun control and gay marriage, and often votes with the GOP. He once pulled the car of Republican Katherine Harris out of a snow bank in Aspen, Colo., before she became famous as a Florida election supervisor in 2000.
Even so, the chairman reacted like a red-blooded partisan last week when Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.), the committee’s ranking Republican, suggested that Democratic leaders were “cutting” farm programs and “turning their backs on rural America.”
“It doesn’t do anybody any good to point fingers, that’s what the American people are fed up with,” said Peterson, who gave examples of how the White House and the Republican Congress had made cuts in farm spending between 2001 and 2006.
As Goodlatte well knows, there has been no “cut” in funding for farm programs under the Democrats. What has changed is the American farm economy. Congressional Budget Office estimates of future subsidies are down sharply, due to soaring farm prices. Under budget rules, this means that programs in a new farm bill have to stay within those spending estimates. But that isn’t a cut. On Tuesday, a key House Agriculture subcommittee proved that by voting unanimously for a 5-year extension of the current farm program, considered by critics to be one of the most generous ever. There were no complaints from the Congressional Budget Office.
It’s understandable that the usually easy-going Peterson is a bit touchy. As the House Agriculture Committee gets ready to draft a final version of a farm bill next month, political pressures on him are mounting from all directions. He can satisfy one group—but that only rankles another.
The big winner Tuesday was cotton, which once again demonstrated its political muscle. A committee “discussion draft” would have eliminated government storage payments and—under some readings—exposed growers to more stringent payment limits. The panel’s decision to simply extend the farm program dropped those changes. Cotton-state lawmakers then added new concessions for shippers and millers, including a 4 cent a pound trade adjustment payment to help spinners and millers upgrade their plants.
“Cotton was actually in the room working on it,” said Peterson. “Without southern support you can’t pass a farm bill.”
But a bill that satisfies all cotton’s desires may not be passable, either.
Peterson has stated previously that going to the floor without changes in payment limits was “not sustainable.”
Over in the Senate, Agriculture Committee Chairman Tom Harkin put it bluntly: “What happened will never pass on the House floor.” He called the action “a very narrow view of agricultural policy,” driven by a “minority segment” of the farm community.
Corn and wheat interests don’t favor continuing the status quo, as the Tuesday action would do.
The National Corn Growers Association advocates a new kind of safety net that would protect farmers from swings in their incomes, rather than the ups and downs of prices. Wheat growers feel they’ve been shortchanged by the current program, and Harkin, for one doesn’t disagree. “Supports for rice and cotton have been alot lot better than for other crops,” he said.
Then there is the threat of a floor fight that could take matters out of the hands of the committee, turning it over to a rabble of lawmakers responding to the concerns of environmentalists, ranchers, fruit and vegetable growers, and the rural and urban poor.
In 2001, the two top Democrats, Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer both voted for an amendment that would have shifted funds from big farmers to conservation programs. That measure received 200 votes and gave the Agriculture Committee a genuine scare. This time around, Rep. Ron Kind (D-Wisc.) is leading a coalition in support of a bill, known as Farm 21, that would phase out subsidies altogether.
This week, half the members of the California congressional delegation wrote Peterson and Goodlatte, asking for a revised farm bill that would provide more funding for “organic, family and beginning farmers,” and for new programs to protect the environment and preserve farmland.
But it might be a mistake to overestimate the strength of the reformers.
Thursday’s collapse of G-4 negotiations on a new global trade agreement only serves to reduce pressure on the committee to steer clear of trade-distorting subsidies. Presumably, it will give Peterson a freer hand to cut the annual allowances, known as direct payments, that the World Trade Organization views as acceptable. Those funds could then be redirected to other popular farm subsidies to lock in more backing for the bill among various farm groups.
Her 2001 vote notwithstanding, is Pelosi an advocate of farm program reform? That isn’t clear as yet.
Her top priority now is protecting the class of Democratic freshmen elected in 2006, many of whom come from swing districts in farm country. All four freshmen among the 10 Democrats voted on Tuesday to extend the existing farm program, and against Kind’s reform. Within the whole farm bill, Pelosi’s top priority isn’t reforming the farm program, but securing funding for energy programs and nutrition.
The committee has already moved to do that. One subcommittee has approved more than $2 billion in loan guarantees and credits for biofuels research and new plants producing cellulosic ethanol. Another panel has proposed adding $5 billion for nutrition programs over five years—a key to winning the backing of the black and Hispanic caucuses. America’s Second Harvest, an anti-hunger group, called the action “hope for millions of hungry Americans.”
A wild card is the fruit and vegetable industry, centered in California and Florida, states with lots of votes in the House. To curry favor with the industry, the committee is proposing new funds for research, and Peterson has ruled out any change in the rule that bars the growing of fruits and vegetables on land that qualifies grain and cotton farmers for direct payments. Lifting the ban, the industry fears, would create competition and drive down prices.
The ban isn’t popular in the grain belt, and the panel gave two freshmen Democrats a high profile moment to represent their constituents. Minnesota Democrat Tim Walz’s proposal to ease the ban was defeated. But the subcommittee went along with a pilot program proposed by Brad Ellsworth of Indiana, allowing the planting of 10,000 acres of tomatoes to supply a processing plant near his district.
On the face of it, Peterson’s statement this week that the full committee would probably end up approving the existing farm program law “with some tweaks” may seem astonishing. U.S. agriculture is changing fast, driven by the biofuels revolution, new environmental concerns, and the global economy. Peterson himself acknowledges that southern agriculture must change: “We probably should be producing less cotton,” he said.
But he is determined to protect “my farmers.”
In the final analysis, all the good ideas for reform and change come down to this: Do they have 218 votes on the House floor? Or does Peterson?
By Dan Morgan