American humorist Will Rogers once noted that he “wasn’t a member of any organized political party” because “I am a Democrat.”
The crack is dead-on funny because it’s bulls-eye true. Just ask any Democrat.
Agricultural Republicans on Capitol Hill, however, are working feverishly to take the title from Rogers’ Dems.
Last month, festering differences between the party’s right wing and the never wrong wing over agricultural policy broke into the open. The heated fight featured mud, tea and invective, but no resolution.
The fight has been a long time coming. Tough-minded GOP Tea Party members tied up the 2012 farm bill until it became the 2014 farm bill. However, the Heritage Foundation, which is the influential conservative think-tank that aided the Tea Partiers, refused to surrender.
On May 5, the foundation issued a 10-point broadside it described as “alternatives … beyond the status quo of central planning and subsidies” for U.S. agricultural policy.
The report’s points hit most farmer and rancher hot buttons — free trade, property rights, over-regulation —and all of the Tea Party’s really hot buttons: free trade, property rights and over-regulation.
However, Heritage’s hotter buttons glow white by what it sees as the hypocrisy at the centre of almost every federal farm policy.
For example, while most farmers and ranchers believe they operate in a “free market,” Heritage says that government “loans, price and revenue guarantees … import barriers, payments to idle land, marketing orders and subsidized crop insurance” have nothing to do with free markets and everything to do with “Depression-era relics ground in central planning philosophies.”
Worse, it says, free markets have nothing in common with things named “the sugar program and the Renewable Fuels Standard.” Ouch.
While the foundation and ranchers and farmers can agree on broad topics such as the loss of free markets and the rise of government red tape, the niceties end when specifics are mentioned: crop insurance subsidies and ethanol mandates, for example.
And all talking will stop when the discussion turns to the idea that “government should not intervene … to ensure that farmers are profitable, as through the ‘shallow loss’ program that protects farmers from even minor losses.”
The very idea that the heavily Republican, deeply conservative Heritage Foundation would attack federal farm programs that were devised, endorsed and used by the mostly Republican, largely conservative farm and ranch folk is unheard of.
And it didn’t go unanswered.
On May 16, an agricultural lobby named Farm Policy Facts fired back. The Heritage report, it noted on its website, “departs from the respected analysis Heritage was once known for in favour of what appears to be the talking point of donors.”
The group, which includes the American Sugar Alliance, National Crop Insurance Services, the National Association of Wheat Growers, the National Cotton Council and the USA Rice Federation, said it’s part of a clear pattern that Heritage now practises.
“Heritage increasingly starts with the answer to any policy question they want and then cherry pick information in order to arrive at their desired conclusion.”
Most of those conclusions, it offered, are “unworthy of a think-tank that years ago … was credible.”
Unworthy or not, the central question Heritage raises isn’t about ethanol mandates or crop insurance subsidies.
Instead, it’s about the future of the modern welfare state, the dominant feature of today’s government, and how special interests — from banks to military contractors to academia and to even, yes, farmers and ranchers — personally benefit from “public” policy as much as the public. That’s a fight worth having and one we will have sooner or later.
But don’t expect it soon because as Will Rogers also noted, “There are three kinds of men: the ones that learn by reading, the few who learn by observation and the rest who have to touch an electric fence.”
Alan Guebert is an Illinois-based agricultural commentator.