Since 1973 farm bills have passed Congress due to broad support that is the result of urban and rural coalitions. Farm state members of Congress have leveraged their votes on issues such as minimum wage or consumer protection – viewed to be critical to urban constituencies – in return for support of agriculture legislation. In addition, a number of additional stakeholders have had a seat at the table during consideration of the recent farm bills. Organizations representing conservation, renewable energy, animal welfare and other interests have all begun to engage the policy debate.
To make farm bills more palatable to a broader constituency, domestic food programs such as food stamps and food aid have become an integral part of the agriculture budget and now comprise approximately ¾ of farm bill expenditures. The strength of this coalition is threatened by the need to reduce federal outlays. Will members of Congress and stakeholders who advocate for domestic food programs be willing to accept reductions to these outlays that are in proportion to those under consideration for program commodities?
In addition to being urban and rural in nature, coalitions are also regional and oriented toward specific commodities. Southern members of Congress who represent cotton, rice and peanuts will often leverage votes for their commodities of interest with Midwestern and Northern members who represent corn, wheat, and soybeans. Since dairy and sugar come from a broader base (e.g. sugar beets in Minnesota/North Dakota and sugarcane in Louisiana), the regional coalitions that are formed regarding these commodities are wider due to regional diversification.
Regional and commodity-based coalitions will see additional stress during consideration of the 2012 farm bill. Reductions to commodity payment mechanisms that disproportionately impact cotton and rice will be met by resistance from Southern members of Congress who will work to ensure that these commodities continue to receive support.
Although the makeup of Congress is increasingly urban in nature and regional differences will remain a challenge, agriculture continues to have a number of options politically.
Because members in the House of Representatives must seek re-election every two years, those who represent rural districts cannot afford to stray too far from their constituency when it comes to agriculture and rural development policy. They will, however, have to balance the views held by voters that farm bill programs that have evolved over the last few decades may not be consistent with calls by the electorate for fiscal restraint.
In the United States Senate (a chamber that functions by unanimous consent), every senator represents agriculture and rural interests, regardless of the size of the state or the types of commodities produced. In addition, the rules and precedents of the United States Senate afford the minority the right to protect and advance commodity provisions and funding for agriculture programs that otherwise might not receive broad support by the majority.
Additional stakeholder organizations, continued demographic shifts, downward budgetary pressure and shifting political realities will challenge the premise upon which traditional coalitions have been built for the four decades. As such, the lens through which policymakers have traditionally viewed coalition development and implementation may also have to change. It will take creative thinking and to craft sound agriculture and rural development policy that reflects the needs of modern agriculture and our rural communities as they strive to compete in the global marketplace.
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