How Cheap Corn and Wheat Could Cost the GOP

The survival of many congressional Republicans could depend on their ag-policy votes.

Dave Fendrich (in tractor) helps Bryant Hofer (in combine) harvest a field of corn on October 2, 2013 near Salem, South Dakota. During last year's drought Hofer averaged about 85 bushels of corn per acre. Although he has just started to harvest his fields, this year Bryants corn has averaged 180 bushels-per-acre. According to the Commerce Department, farm earnings nationwide were down 14.6% during the second quarter of the year. Many Midwest states, which are rebounding from last year's severe drought, reported some of the biggest drops. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)
National Journal
Jerry Hagstrom
Jan. 5, 2014, 7 a.m.

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.

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