An Urban's Rural View

For the Love of Farmers

Urban C Lehner
By  Urban C Lehner , Editor Emeritus
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Donald Trump says he loves farmers, and I'm sure he means it. It's just that he has to be reminded of it every once in a while.

Fourteen months ago, the president was on the verge of withdrawing from NAFTA. Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue brought an electoral map to the White House to remind Trump that the people who would be hurt by the withdrawal had voted for him.

The reminder had the desired effect. The map "shows that I do have a very big farmer base, which is good," Trump told the Washington Post. "They like Trump, but I like them, and I'm going to help them." (https://www.washingtonpost.com/…)

No doubt he meant that, too, but ag interests have still felt compelled to issue periodic reminders. Several groups have reminded him, sometimes in forceful terms, that when he raises tariffs on steel and aluminum, the retaliatory tariffs disproportionately hurt U.S. ag.

Iowa Republican Senator Charles Grassley reminded him the other day that ethanol plants buy 40% of what corn farmers grow. He threatened to call for the resignation of EPA boss Scott Pruitt if the EPA keeps taking steps to sap ethanol demand.

More reminders may be necessary if the Trump administration goes ahead with a government reorganization plan it's reported to be working on, for that plan would undermine agriculture's influence in Washington.

According to Politico, the administration wants to move the $70 billion-a-year food-stamp program from USDA to the Department of Health and Human Services. (https://www.politico.com/…) The idea is to house all of the welfare programs under one roof.

But perhaps someone should remind the president that stripping food stamps from USDA would not only leave the department a shadow of its former self, with only a quarter of its accustomed budget. It would rip apart the coalition of urban and rural political interests that have made passing a farm bill possible.

Farmers represent only 2% of the population. The farmers who produce most of the food are a much smaller percentage. Very few Congressmen -- maybe as few as 40 by one informed estimate -- depend heavily on those commercial farmers for votes. Yet every few years Congress passes a farm bill, which means a majority of the 435 members of the House of Representatives vote for it.

Why do farm bills command such broad support? Because they're not just about agriculture. As David Orden and Carl Zulauf put it in the American Journal of Agricultural Economics, "Benefits are provided to traditional nonfarm constituencies, including conservation and nutrition assistance, and are extended to new nonfarm stakeholders. Maintaining this broad coalition is vital to enacting a farm bill and provides multiple paths to securing congressional majorities." (https://academic.oup.com/…)

The conservative think tanks that have been pushing for this reorganization understand this. One of their aims is to weaken support for both farm subsidies and nutrition subsidies. They know that if the food-stamp program moves to HHS, it will no longer be under the supervision of the agriculture committees and no longer included in the farm bill. The coalition will collapse.

Perhaps the president isn't aware of this. Or, perhaps, he assumes Congress won't enact this reorganization anyway, so by proposing it he can throw the conservative think tanks a bone without harming farmers. Either way, it's worth reminding him that while he may love farmers, farmers won't love him if he dilutes their political clout.

Urban Lehner can be reached at urbanize@gmail.com

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