September 21, 2010
Senator Lugar Passes Freedom To Farm

After the 1994 Republican takeover of Congress, Indiana Senator Richard Lugar was able to do what he had wanted to do for years: reduce farm subsidies and farm regulations.

Again I'll use the 1998 Almanac of American Politics to tell the story.

But even amid his ill-fated presidential campaign, he achieved a staggering legislative success in the passage of the Federal Agriculture Improvement and reform Act of 1996 — The Freedom to Farm Act.  Lugar is a farmer himself, raising corn soybeans and wheat on a 600-acre spread outside Indianapolis.  But for years he had opposed the complex system of farm subsidies which had many farmers responding to government regulations and subsidies rather than to the market.  As ranking Republican on the Agriculture Committee since 1987, he formed a coalition of Republicans and non-subsidy Democrats who took the lead in fashioning a 1990 farm bill that froze target prices and dairy supports, allowed farmers more flexibility, ended land-idling schemes and cut spending.   In 1992. he led a crusade to close some of the 11,000 USDA field offices in nearly all of the nation's 3000-plus counties.  As chairman in 1995, he set forth a series of tough questions for incoming Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman, critically examining the need for current subsidies and calling for reduced target prices annually until they are zeroed out in five years.  That set the stage for the 1996 farm bill.  Lugar's stance, and the House Republican budget which set tight limits on farm spending, helped convince House Agriculture chairman Pat Roberts, now Kansas senator, that subsidies must be phased out.  Lugar in the meantime moved his bill in the Senate.  In late January 1996 he left the campaign trail in Iowa and returned to Washington to outmaneuver Dakota Democrats Tom Daschle and Byron Dorgan, and pass a bill phasing out most subsidies over seven years, thus encouraging farmers to produce for export.  He was especially proud of its environmental provisions— $200 million for the Everglades, an expansion of the Conservation Reserve program for wetlands, and an incentive program for waste containment facilities.  The bill became law in 1996 — and probably never would have come close to passage without Lugar. (pp. 523-524)

Lugar's success was less permanent that most of us would like; some of the provisions of the 1996 bill were reversed in 2002 and 2007.  (Bush vetoed the 2007 bill, but his veto was over-ridden by the Pelosi-Reid Congress.)

Nonetheless, anyone who is familiar with the difficulty of changing agriculture policy will be impressed by what Senator Lugar has been able to achieve.  And anyone who expects these gains to stay permanent, without a struggle, should review the history of the mohair subsidy, here and here.

In fact, I would say that Lugar's achievement is even more impressive than Livingston's budget cuts, which I described in the first post in this series.  But then I have the advantage of watching Congress struggle with these issues for more than fifty years.

I see several lessons in Lugar's partial 1996 victory.  First, it came after a long struggle and many small steps.  Second, although it was a bipartisan victory, it came only after Lugar received Republican reinforcements.  Third, Lugar would probably not have succeeded if he had not been completely familiar with the issues, and exceptionally smart and hard working.   (And it didn't hurt that he is a farmer, himself.)

Fourth, and most important perhaps, is that these fights almost always occur on the margins, and are almost never final.  We make progress, or regress, mostly step by step, and the losers almost always come back for more tries at moving the boundaries.  If Lugar is able to win another similar battle in 2011, we should expect that those he defeated will come back for more subsidies and regulations in later years.  (Political tacticians should, even now, be thinking hard about ways to make gains permanent.  In farm policy, that would mean, for instance, finding popular ways to de-regulate, so that those who favor regulation would have little support among farmers.)

Cross posted at Jim Miller on Politics.

(Are there Republicans in Congress now who have programs they want to eliminate?  Yes, there are; in fact, there's even a sunset caucus, which has a list of programs they would like to eliminate, including that mohair subsidy.)

Posted by Jim Miller at September 21, 2010 04:35 PM | Email This
1. It isn't the free trade that is devastating small American Farms, it is the monopolistic power that has just in the last 20 years started to accumulate within the retail sector of the economy.

That power has allowed purchasers to play off small farms and large farming corporations against one another to force down commodity prices. Those prices are artificially low (relative to cost of production) because farms have specific bankruptcy protection and loan guarantees that allow them to operate longer at a loss.

If the suppliers, or farmers had enough power to offset that of the purchasers, then farm prices would rise to a point where the small farm isn't losing money.

Posted by: Doug on September 21, 2010 08:29 PM
2. There are many reasons the farmers of Western Washington's lush river valleys are suffering financially, not the least of which is radical environmentalism. I saw a sticker on a neighbor's bumper awhile back that read, "It's Not About Salmon...It's About Control"

Case in point: The two-faced elitist transplants that control Jefferson County's government love to speak of "Eating Local", all the while implementing policies that severely restrict local farmers' rights to successfully raise food crops on their own land.

Posted by: Saltherring on September 21, 2010 09:29 PM
3. You have to remember this: The goal of big Government Democrats is to make us more dependent on foreign imports for food.

Their policies have moved this country from feeding the world to being dependent on it.

They are exporting everything from jobs, food, tech, cars etc... They are rapidly stripping the country of everything.

They should change their symbol to the locust.

Posted by: Vince on September 22, 2010 12:13 PM
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