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.
Senate Agriculture Committee Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) is a nice guy. A liberal populist, he fights for good causes and often wins battles on behalf of the disabled, women, workers and the hungry.
But is he too nice to get what he wants from the bruising struggle taking place behind the scenes in the Senate over the next farm bill?
In 2001 and 2002, when Harkin also chaired the committee, Majority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) and Kent Conrad (D-N.D.) grabbed control of the legislation and put their stamp on it.
Conrad often acted as if he was chairman, meeting with House Agriculture Committee chief Larry Combest (R-Texas) and cutting deals.
This time around, Conrad is once again a blur of activity, working with the committee’s ranking Republican, Saxby Chambliss (Ga.), and with Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.) to line up support for a farm bill title setting aside big money for farmers hit with crop failures or weather-related disasters.
Harkin doesn’t like Conrad’s proposal, which is aimed especially (though not exclusively) at North Dakota farmers who get an average of less than 20 inches of rainfall annually and—predictably enough—repeatedly lose crops and pastureland due to drought.
Harkin wants a broader safety net that would help farmers when farm income in a state falls below the norm for whatever reason—bad weather, weak markets, a collapse in the ethanol boom. His plan, he argues, would help more farmers than Conrad’s, even in the parched northern plains.
But Conrad is a relentless political operator who never quits. And that’s the pity. Harkin is an idea man with a progressive vision of where U.S. agriculture is going and what the farm bill should look like. But as the weeks drag on and Senate work on the farm bill is delayed, he seems increasingly hemmed in by Conrad’s aggressive tactics and the real politik of Senate dealing making.
He acknowledged as much Tuesday in one of his regular teleconferences with reporters. While he still held out hopes for what he said would be “very modest” reforms of the basic subsidy programs, he twice noted that he was limited by “the art of the possible,” i.e., he can’t move a bill out of his committee without votes from hardline advocates of traditional subsidies.
Harkin’s subdued tone contrasts with his excitement and energy as he embarked on the farm bill process earlier this year. Then he suggested it was “an ideal time to do some reform and reorganize our priorities.” The farm bill passed in July by the House continued existing subsidies for another five years. “A very narrow view of agricultural policy,” was Harkin’s description of it.
That was then. This is now, after many closed-door sessions on Capitol Hill with lobbyists for commodity groups and farm organizations. Rough drafts of Harkin’s legislation don’t look that different from the House bill.
Harkin has often said that the money budgeted for the farm bill is insufficient to finance the innovative conservation, nutrition, energy and research programs that are his top priority.
But that is only because one very large pot, the $25 billion set aside for “direct payments” to growers of program crops over the next five years, is politically untouchable.
Direct payments are an entitlement that goes to farmers regardless of prices, yields, weather or incomes. They were a key piece of the 1996 “Freedom to Farm” law, billed as a “transition” to a more market-oriented agriculture.
It’s been a long transition. The House bill would keep direct payments at the same level for another five years. Corn growers, prospering in the corn ethanol boom, would receive $10.5 billion. (Government budget analysts predict that strong corn prices will continue; ethanol plants are currently offering more than $3 a bushel for the 2008 corn crop.)
Harkin has never been a fan of direct payments and would like to steer the money to conservation programs or a redesigned safety net that would be deployed in low-income years. Direct payments, he recognizes, are not a safety net (farmers get them when their returns are high or low). And since the payments are predictable from year to year, landlords “capture” them in the rents they charge for farmland.
When I reached Harkin in Iowa last week, the day after his annual “steak fry,” he told me: “How in heck can you justify direct payments when they’re making so much money? You can’t. With all the demands to plant corn for ethanol year after year, the need for conservation is greater than ever. There’s a greater need for bumper strips and soil conserving practices and crop rotation. That’s a better use of the money. I think the support for direct payments is dwindling–but you can’t just pull the rug out.”
Key Midwest senators in both parties, including Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) and Richard Lugar (R-Ind.), favor phasing out or scrapping direct payments. Durbin said in an interview he would support shifting some of the funds to a revamped safety net plan. Lugar would terminate traditional farm programs altogether. The proposals might find considerable Senate support, but first the bill has to get to the floor.
But in the committee, Harkin faces the political power of southern crops benefiting substantially from the direct payment system. Rice “base” pays about $100 an acre, peanuts $45 and cotton $35. That compares to $25 for corn, $15 for wheat and $7 for canola.
So Harkin finds himself wedged between Conrad, who wants the disaster provision, and Chambliss, advocate for southern agriculture. Unable to tap into direct payments to finance his priorities, he can only hope that the Finance Committee—where Conrad is the number three Democrat—can steer some cash toward him.
Harkin won’t criticize Conrad for his single-minded push for the disaster provision. “The Conrad staff has consistently met with mine,” he said. “The problem is how to squeeze a size 12 foot into a size 10 shoe. Kent’s as frustrated as I am.”
That’s what makes the Iowa senator such a nice guy.
By Dan Morgan