Farm lobby's power has deep roots

By Mike Dorning and Andrew Martin, Chicago Tribune

WASHINGTON - If anyone has an insider's view of the cozy and enduring alliances that maintain America's generous farm subsidy program, it's Larry Combest.

He spent 18 years representing west Texas cotton country in Congress, fighting for subsidies on Capitol Hill while reaping political benefits back home. He chaired the House Agriculture Committee the last time Congress rewrote the farm bill, legislation that provided farmers a windfall of federal largess. Now, after leaving Congress, he's on the farm lobby's payroll with the job of persuading his former colleagues to keep the good times rolling.

Combest's success in protecting subsidies means consumers pay twice, once at the grocery store and again on their tax bills.

Regular as the harvest for 73 years, the renewal of farm subsidies is being challenged by a coalition that includes the Bush administration, environmentalists and fiscal conservatives. Congress is expected to rewrite the farm bill next year.

But Combest is hardly trembling.

At a recent gathering of agribusiness leaders in Washington, Combest was cocksure.

"I'm not saying it's impossible to force radical change onto the farmers of this country," he said, according to a partial transcript. "I'm just saying that before all the medley of malefactors who are teamed up to bring farm policy down in this country break out the inverted pentagrams or whatever voodoo that unites them, they need to understand that the real environment - as opposed to the one they are trying to conjure up - is not on their side."

The "real environment," personified by Combest, is a self-perpetuating cycle of money, votes and political power that has made agriculture one of Washington's most entrenched special interests, even as the number of farmers has dwindled to about 1 percent of the population.

On the inside, it's a wheel of fortune for everybody involved, including farmers, lobbyists and farm-state congressmen. Taxpayers pick up the tab: a record $23 billion in farm subsidies last year. For critics, subsidies are a costly anachronism in a country that long ago moved from its agrarian base.

Critics also contend the system encourages unhealthy eating. Corn subsidies lower costs of grain-fed meat and sweeteners used in soft drinks. Consumers generally pay full cost for fruits and vegetables, most of which are not subsidized.

But supporters of farm programs say they provide a safety net to help farmers and ensure an abundant, relatively inexpensive and homegrown food supply. They also argue subsidies level the playing field because many other wealthy nations subsidize their farmers.

"I think Americans like the fact that we produce a lot of our food in the country," Combest said. "And we have less subsidies than some other countries."

So Washington sends subsidy payments to farmers. Farmers reward the politicians with votes and money. Farm groups and agribusinesses lubricate the system with campaign contributions and lobbying jobs.

With elections less than six months away, the 20 members of the Senate Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry Committee already have collected more than $7.1 million in campaign contributions from the farm sector while their 46 House counterparts have received $2.9 million, according to the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics.

Combest is far from the only person to pass through the capital's revolving farm door. The House Agriculture Committee's former top-ranking Democrat, Charles Stenholm of Texas, lobbies on behalf of agriculture interests too. In all, at least 19 congressional aides who worked on the 2002 farm bill have taken jobs as agriculture lobbyists or with commodity groups or farm organizations.

What's more, members of Congress and staff can count on being treated to junkets: Big Sugar plays host at mountain resorts, and the cotton industry in Las Vegas and New Orleans.

Although the health-care industry and trial lawyers spend far more than Big Farm to influence Washington, the farm lobby is distinguished by a well-organized grass-roots network of organizations that extends throughout rural America. In the capital, farmers are represented by a core group of long-serving lobbyists who regularly band together, setting aside divergent interests to keep the dollars flowing to farm programs.

And this lobby can draw on public sympathy for a stereotype of a quaint family farm.

The political structure also works in its favor. The Senate's equal representation gives voters in sparsely populated rural states extra political weight.

And it doesn't hurt that the first presidential caucus is held in Iowa, where candidates ritually pay homage to the myth of the family farm.

Sen. Richard Lugar, R-Ind., former chairman of the Senate agriculture committee, stands as an anomaly. He opposed much of the farm subsidy program the last time Congress rewrote the farm bill.

Lugar said lawmakers use votes for the farm bill as a sort of currency: Senators from non-agricultural states agree to support subsidies as long as farm-state senators back the others' favored programs.

"They say, 'Give us our program, and we won't cause you a whole lot of trouble,"' said Lugar. "So expediently, people will say, 'Well, that's probably about right."'

And there are practical considerations. Farmers vote. And in states dependent on agriculture those votes can swing a race.

What's at stake for farmers who benefit from subsidies is a regular payment from the government, not unlike Social Security.

Others also gain. Subsidies are paid to absentee landowners who live far from the fields, in places like Chicago and to wealthy gentleman farmers. Recipients have included former basketball star Scottie Pippen and newsman Sam Donaldson.

On a sunny Saturday morning last month at a farm exhibition in Great Bend, Kan., Rep. Jerry Moran, R-Kan., a member of the House Agriculture Committee, stood onstage dressed in Wranglers and cowboy boots to take questions.

The farmers there had a one-track mind: maintaining government aid for farmers, from drought relief to ethanol promotion to the more basic subsidies.

"And even when they don't talk about it, it's never far from their minds," said Moran, whose district has collected the second most in farm subsidies since 1995, $6.2 billion, according to the Environmental Working Group, a conservation organization. "It is a part of whether their son or daughter has a future in farming."

Farm subsidies were started during the Depression as, in theory, a temporary emergency measure to aid farmers amid a decline in crop prices.

Even then, politics were part of the calculus. President Franklin D. Roosevelt used subsidies to get rural and Southern support for the New Deal.

The program survived and expanded even as its natural constituency dwindled. In 1930, 1 in 4 Americans lived on a farm; now about 1 in 100 do, and many farmers are only part-timers. Two-thirds of farmers receive no subsidies, as the benefits go only to producers of a handful of basic crops.

Defenders of subsidy programs say their $23 billion cost is a miniscule percentage of the federal budget, less than 1 percent.

"There are other programs out there that spend money that probably have a lot more controversy surrounding them," Combest said.

He said he sees nothing wrong with fighting for farms as a lobbyist. "I have agriculture as an interest. I've had it all my life," he said. "People have a tendency to stay involved in an area that they have some expertise and knowledge. ... I'm not working for an industry I disagree with."

But critics argue that farm programs stifle U.S. business by blocking trade agreements and encourage large-scale industrial agriculture because the system rewards farmers for growing as much as possible. And they indirectly damage the environment, critics say, because intensive farming relies so heavily on chemicals.

Developing nations say they can't compete when U.S. overproduction is dumped on world markets. Chicago Mayor Richard Daley has joined the critics, blaming artificially high sugar prices supported by the farm program for driving Brach's and other Chicago-based candy-manufacturers overseas.

The renewal of the farm subsidies is typically reauthorized in six-year increments.

And each crop brings its own constituency. The Midwest covets corn and soybean subsidies. The Great Plains pitch for the wheat program. The Southwest, Texas and California plead for help for cotton, rice and peanuts. The Northeast, upper Midwest and Southeast appeal for dairy programs. And sugar support comes from cane growers in Florida, Louisiana, Hawaii and beet growers in many Northern states.

Nutrition programs for the poor - such as food stamps - were added to the farm bill in the 1960s. That way, urban lawmakers agree to support farm subsidies as long as farm-state congressmen vote in favor of nutrition programs.

"There's no secret why food stamps are in the ag bill - because they get votes from people who wouldn't know a corn stalk if they saw one," said Rep. Ray LaHood, R-Ill., a former Agriculture Committee member.

The coalition of farm groups has been resilient, in part because none of the interests has waged war against another. Even when health advocates attacked tobacco subsidies, the coalition continued to support them until tobacco growers agreed to a federal buy-out.

"It was made very clear to those of us on the committee," LaHood said. "I don't grow one leaf of tobacco in my area in Illinois. The point was, even if you don't like tobacco, you'd better be for tobacco if you want corn and (soy) beans to be taken care of."

The farm lobby works hard to maintain chummy relations on Capitol Hill.

When the sugar industry hosted Sens. Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., Kent Conrad, D-N.D., and five congressional staffers at its "sweetener symposium" in Vail, Colo., in 2004, the leisure activities included white-water rafting and golf. Three mornings of seminars on trade and sugar issues were spread over the five-day event.

As a general rule, the more controversial the farm program, the more money its backers dole out in junkets and campaign contributions.

And the biggest beneficiaries of agriculture's funding are the leadership of the House and Senate Agriculture Committees, and the leadership of the agriculture appropriations subcommittees.

Rep. Henry Bonilla, R-Texas, chairman of the House appropriations subcommittee, has raised $300,000 from the farm sector, and Sen. Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga., chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee, $287,000.

The farm lobby also generates good will by offering jobs to members of Congress and their staffs. The committees overseeing agriculture have become a reliable farm system for the USDA, commodity organizations and lobbying firms. Dale Thorenson is a typical example.

A farm boy from North Dakota, Thorenson started as an aide for Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., in 1999. He helped with the 2002 farm bill.

Just months after it passed, Thorenson joined Gordley Associates, where he lobbies on behalf of some of his home state's key crops.

"Everybody in town knows that if you want to stay in town and get a job, you've got to get along with the big commodity groups, because they are the biggest employers," said a former congressional staffer who worked on agricultural issues.

Thorenson disagreed, saying he fully intended to move back to North Dakota after his work was done on Capitol Hill. While denying a quid pro quo, he said congressional staffers who work on agriculture issues, most of whom have farm backgrounds, are uniquely qualified to lobby Congress.

"If you have not been a staff person up there, it's pretty hard to know what they go through and the demands they face each day," he said.

The loose alliance working to reform American farm policy is broad and diverse. It includes the Environmental Defense, the Chicago Council on Foreign Relations, the Cato Institute, a libertarian research group based in Washington, and the Food Products Association, a trade association fighting for market-oriented farm programs that would reduce sugar prices and accelerate trade talks.

The groups have different reasons for trying to change farm policy - some want more money for conservation, others want to lower the federal budget deficit - but they all want to roll back subsidy payments.

Even the most passionate reformers, however, acknowledge it will be hard to match the intensity of the farm lobby.

"You get an association such as mine, we've got a lot of priorities," said Cal Dooley, a former California lawmaker and member of the House Agriculture Committee who is now president of the Food Products Association. "This is one of them, but it's not even a top priority. The farm lobby has a narrower agenda: They are all about perpetuating the farm bill."

Even so, reformers believe they have at least a shot at change this time. Defenders and critics of the farm program cite two wild cards that could upend the debate: political anxiety over the massive federal budget deficit and the increasingly likely prospect of retaliation from global trading partners aggrieved by American farm subsidies.

In addition, there is mounting pressure to give a larger share of the farm payments to renewable fuels such as ethanol, conservation programs and fruit and vegetable growers. Even some farm backers worry that the farm lobby, so durable during the last seven decades, could be severely tested if the pool of money shrinks.

"When you have a lot of money to spend, it's a lot easier to hold together," said Jon Doggett, a lobbyist for the National Corn Growers Association. "You have a limited number of dollars ... then it has to come out of someone else's pocket."

For now, the strategy seems to be for farmers to hold on to what they have for as long as possible. The American Farm Bureau, the nation's largest farm organization, is pushing for an extension of the current farm bill, and there is already a bill before Congress to do just that.

Former Sen. Peter Fitzgerald, R-Ill., who served on the Senate agriculture committee, is among those betting that the farm lobby will prevail again.

"If you believe that farm policy is ever going to be reformed, then I got some swamp land to sell you in Louisiana," he said. "It ain't going to happen."

Published on: Sunday, June 4, 2006 6:48 AM CDT