As Congress returns to take up the farm bill this month, pressure is finally growing on Republicans to pass a new bill for the most basic of reasons: political survival.
For the last several years, commodity prices have been so high that farmers haven't been concerned about their safety net and farm leaders have found it impossible to get their members to put on the kind of grassroots campaigns that are usually required to get a bill enacted. Those high prices have allowed Republicans, particularly in the House, to engage in an endless debate over food stamps, formally known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP.
Now big crops and the Obama administration's decision to consider lowering the volumetric requirements for corn-based ethanol and biodiesel under the renewable-fuel standard have sent commodity prices plummeting and raised questions about land values. As Bloomberg has reported, corn prices in 2013 experienced their biggest one-year drop since 1960 and wheat prices dropped the most in five years. Prices haven't fallen below profitable levels yet, but farmers and their bankers now see that they need the certainty of a five-year bill, whatever its details.
Since the Democratic-controlled Senate passed a farm bill in 2012 and 2013 and the House passed it in 2013 after the most excruciating lengthy battle, there seems to be an understanding in political circles that if the conference report gets held up, rural voters will see it as the fault of the Republicans in general and the House Republicans in particular.
The evidence can already be seen in key Senate races. In December, Sen. Mark Pryor, D-Ark., said that the vote of his expected opponent, GOP Rep. Tom Cotton, against a comprehensive farm bill last June because it didn't cut food stamps enough had hurt Arkansas farmers. Pryor urged farmers to ask Cotton how he will vote on the conference report that will most certainly include both commodity programs and food stamps.
In Kentucky, Allison Lundergan Grimes, a Democrat running against Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, has charged in a TV ad that Congress's slowness in passing a farm bill means "McConnell's failure to lead hurts Kentucky farmers." Grimes has also called McConnell's vote against the Senate farm bill "shameful."
McConnell, who also faces a Republican primary, justified his vote, telling reporters, "In the Senate bill, it just largely became a food-stamp bill with production agriculture kind of stuck on as an afterthought."
Sen. Tammy Baldwin, D-Wis., is not up for reelection in 2014, but she recently used the farm bill in a fundraising letter. "The failure to pass a strong farm bill could do serious damage to Wisconsin's economy and to communities all over the country who depend on family farms moving local economies forward. Tea-party obstructionists can't be allowed to play political games with America's rural economy," Baldwin wrote to her supporters.
The farm bill could also become an issue in Senate races in Georgia, Iowa, Louisiana, Montana, South Dakota, and West Virginia.
Democrats cite the 2012 Senate elections as reason to use the farm bill in their campaigns. There is evidence that the unwillingness of House Republicans to take up the farm bill in 2012 helped elect Democratic Sens. Heidi Heitkamp in North Dakota, Jon Tester in Montana, Joe Donnelly in Indiana, and Claire McCaskill in Missouri.
Heitkamp and Tester repeatedly noted that their opponents, then-Reps. Rick Berg and Dennis Rehberg, failed to convince the Republican House leadership to bring up the farm bill.
McCaskill's and Donnelly's victories are usually attributed to the extreme social conservatism of their opponents. But McCaskill criticized her opponent, then-Rep. Todd Akin, R-Mo., for proposing a separation of food stamps and the farm program because it would be hard to pass a farm program-only bill.
Donnelly, a Democratic House member from Indiana when he was running for the Senate, pointed out that his opponent, Richard Mourdock, had accused then-Sen. Richard Lugar of driving up the price of gasoline by supporting Indiana ethanol during the Republican primary that Mourdock won. He also pointed out that Mourdock was backed by the Club for Growth and FreedomWorks, which both opposed the farm bill. One national ag leader said in an interview that while Indiana farmers usually vote Republican, corn producers felt compelled to say that Donnelly had been a stronger supporter of their interests than Mourdock.
Oddly enough, the House Republican intransigence on the farm bill has had more impact on Senate races than on the House races themselves. North Dakota and Montana, which have at-large districts, elected Republicans Kevin Cramer and Steve Daines to succeed Berg and Rehberg. In more populous states, the gerrymandering of districts may reduce the potential for Democrats to exploit the issue. David Wasserman of the Cook Political Report said he has not found the farm bill to be an issue in many House races so far this year. But an exception, Wasserman noted, is in Florida's 2nd District where GOP Rep. Steve Southerland is running for reelection. Southerland has been accused of torpedoing the farm bill last year because he wrote the food stamp work-requirement amendment that led Democrats to vote against the first House version. Southerland has attracted a high-profile opponent, Gwen Graham, the daughter of former Democratic Sen. and Gov. Bob Graham.
The farm bill could also be a factor in Senate primaries. Senate Agriculture Committee ranking member Thad Cochran, R-Miss., would certainly benefit from the completion of a farm bill in his primary battle against a more conservative opponent.
The congressional farm-bill leaders — House Agriculture Committee Chairman Frank Lucas, R-Okla., who is chairing the conference; Senate Agriculture Committee Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich.; House Agriculture ranking member Collin Peterson, D-Minn.; and Cochran — still have work to do. They have not yet released their framework bill or held a final public conference meeting, but they are expressing confidence that their product will be accepted. The bill could still become mired in a debate over whether its savings should be used to offset an extension of unemployment benefits.
But Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, told reporters last week that he expects Congress to send a bill to President Obama by the second week in January. That could be an optimistic time-frame, but it would certainly be welcomed by a lot of candidates running for election.
Contributing Editor Jerry Hagstrom is the founder and executive director of The Hagstrom Report, which may be found at www.HagstromReport.com.