In Farm Country, Democrats' Bitter Harvest

11/04/2010 11:20 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Just two years ago, Democratic political strategists defended passage of a status-quo farm subsidy bill by claiming it was essential to the survival of freshmen members from farm districts and to the party's continued control of the House.

But after Tuesday's devastating losses, most of those marginal seats are in Republican hands, and rural victories were critical to the GOP's takeover of the House.

An EWG analysis of the 2010 mid-term election results authored by EWG agriculture analyst David DeGennaro shows that for besieged rural Democrats, voting for the 2008 Farm Bill and its lavish subsidies for the largest and wealthiest agribusiness operations failed to shield them from the Republican wave.

At least 15 Democratic members of the House Agriculture Committee lost, including ardent subsidy defenders Stephanie Herseth Sandlin of South Dakota and Earl Pomeroy of North Dakota. In all, 46 Democratic seats changed hands in districts that rank in the top half of farm subsidy receiving congressional districts listed in EWG's farm subsidy database. A loss of 39 seats was needed to flip the House, so the margin was more than given away in rural agriculture districts.

The Democratic losses contrast with the fate of House Republicans from subsidy-heavy districts who survived the Democratic wave election of 2008 even though they voted against the 2008 bill, citing their commitment to cut federal spending and budget deficits. These included Ron Paul of Texas, whose district ranks 37th out of 435 in receipt of federal farm subsidies; Mike Pence of Indiana, whose district ranks 43rd; and Todd Tiahrt of Kansas, whose district ranks 54th.

As expected, Democratic Sen. Blanche Lincoln of Arkansas, a champion of big government benefits for large-scale commodity producers in her state and chairwoman of the powerful Senate Agriculture Committee, was handily defeated in her reelection bid. Her loss follows past defeats of agriculture-minded Democrats in leadership positions such as former Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle of South Dakota in 2004, Speaker of the House Tom Foley, former Secretary of Agriculture and Kansas Representative Dan Glickman in 1992, and former House Agriculture Committee member Charles Stenholm from Texas in 2004.

As my colleague Mr. DeGennaro wrote on Oct. 11, there is a critical role to be played by the federal government and the taxpayer in supporting farm programs. Small- and medium-sized farmers need a true safety net to protect them from fickle markets and the vagaries of Mother Nature; even large farming operations deserve a measure of support. But the gross inequities in our current maze of farm programs -- sending the bulk of payments to the largest and wealthiest farms and allocating 90 percent of farm subsidies go to just five favored commodity crops - must be changed if America is ever going to realistically confront its simultaneous hunger and obesity epidemics, and find the resources needed to solve agriculture's many environmental challenges.

Tuesday's results, however, clearly refute the notion that blind service to agribusiness guarantees reelection. If anything, they are a loud signal that there is negligible political benefit to toeing the agribusiness and subsidy lobby line.

The 2008 Farm Bill debate was heavily influenced by a disparate coalition of groups, including taxpayer, hunger, nutrition and environmental advocates, that pushed to reform the current system of government payments that flows disproportionately to the largest growers of commodity crops such as corn and cotton. The reform effort was blunted in part by a Democratic House caucus that followed Speaker Nancy Pelosi's political calculation of embracing the agribusiness agenda.

Highlighting the notion that standing up to Big Ag isn't the kiss of death at the polls, Wisconsin Democrat Ron Kind, who led reform efforts in the House in 2008, won his close race Tuesday.

If members of Congress who vote against the Farm Bill are able to win, and Farm Bill champions tend to lose more often in close races, what does this say about the real political clout of the Big Ag lobby? It would seem that farm state lawmakers need not quake in fear of getting on Big Ag's bad side, as they did in 2007-08. Speaker Pelosi largely gave in to the agriculture lobby's demands, predicating her support for traditional farm subsidies on the need to protect newly elected Democrats who helped deliver her the majority in 2006. Of the 10 or so freshmen Democrats that year, only four remain. One wonders whether her political calculation was worth it in the end.

The news that specialty crop-friendly (fruits and vegetables) Sen. Debbie Stabenow is in line to take over the Senate Agriculture Committee means that the Democratic caucus has an opportunity to pursue a more progressive course on farm policy - one that will better reflect the nation's priorities of healthy food, conservation and a fiscally responsible, equitable farm safety net.

And with the House's power shift to the GOP, the consensus is that Rep. Frank Lucas of Oklahoma will take the reins from current Agriculture Chairman Collin Peterson of Minnesota. Lucas has made clear that direct payments - billions every year in farm subsidies that go out automatically to the largest farm operations regardless of need - are untouchable.

What's interesting, however, is that Republicans now in power in the House, including the presumptive new speaker, John Boehner, who voted against the 2008 Farm Bill, are in a position to finally reform farm subsidies, especially given their calls for less spending and smaller government.

We expect the first test of the new order in Washington will come in the lame duck session of Congress as Republicans, moderate Democrats, and the White House respond to the ethanol lobby's demand for $6 billion per year in new subsidy spending.