lobby's power has deep roots
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
"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
Even then, politics were part of the calculus.
President Franklin D. Roosevelt used subsidies
to get rural and Southern support for the New
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
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
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
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
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
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
"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
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
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
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
"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
Published on: Sunday, June 4, 2006
6:48 AM CDT