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What About Agriculture?

Agricultural policy may be one of the least talked about issues in the 2016 presidential race, at least when it comes to the debate stage. Though not as glamorous as discussions of immigration reform or fighting ISIS, it’s still a vitally important issue with significant ramifications for the federal budget and the broader economy. Thus far, it has gained some air time in Iowa, largely because of the state’s significant farming demographic. But even there, candidates largely focused on ethanol mandates, while neglecting the larger issues of a retiring farming workforce and rampant Big Ag cronyism.

So what do the 2016 frontrunners have to say about agriculture? And how many of them are really as principled about ag reform as they claim to be?

Take Ted Cruz, Iowa’s winner: he’s known for his principled, dogmatic stands on fiscal issues in the Senate. He opposed the Farm Bill back in 2013—though he primarily spoke against the food stamp elements of the bill, while ignoring what Jim Antle called the bill’s “welfare for the rich and politically connected.” Nonetheless, he’s been brave enough to express his opposition to ethanol mandates, even while campaigning in the land of King Corn. “I don’t think Washington should be picking winners and losers,” he told a crowd of Iowa farmers last March. “I have every bit of faith that businesses can continue to compete, can continue to do well without having to go on bended knee to Washington asking for subsidies, asking for special favors.”

But does Cruz really have the guts to fight ag cronyism when his potential presidency is on the line? Despite his transparent resolve in Iowa, in December, Cruz flipped his vote on an important crop insurance funding measure in a highway bill in December. Lori Sanders of the R Street Institute explains the bill’s importance:

Tucked neatly away in Sec. 32205, on Page 1,143 of the 1,301-page bill, is a repeal of Sec. 201 of the Bipartisan Budget Act of 2015, passed in early November. For taxpayer advocates, Sec. 201 was one of that bill’s strongest selling points. It ordered the Department of Agriculture to renegotiate the Standard Reinsurance Agreement the federal government has with private insurers who participate in the federal crop insurance program. It would push their taxpayer-guaranteed rate of return down from 14 percent to 8.9 percent.

This small reduction actually goes a long way. The agriculture portion of the farm bill is vastly over budget, to the tune of more than $5 billion in 2014 alone. Despite Big Ag’s cries that their programs deliver taxpayer savings, a large chunk of the supposed savings from the latest farm bill already have been squandered on higher-than-expected payouts from our overly generous farm programs.

That’s why free-market advocates from Citizens against Government Waste to FreedomWorks to the National Taxpayers Union came out in force to support renegotiation. The Heritage Foundation lauded the provision as real savings in a package they otherwise termed a “colossal step” away from fiscal restraint. Unfortunately, it seems Big Ag is about to win the day, and in the most backhanded way – by attaching a seven-line provision to a completely unrelated bill.

Politico reported that, while originally voting “no” on the measure, Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman Pat Roberts took Cruz aside and talked to him. After a brief visit to the Senate cloakroom, Cruz stepped back in and voted “yes” for the measure. Other fiscal conservatives such as Mike Lee of Utah, and Rand Paul voted against it.

Could this demonstrate that Cruz, in truth, would be willing to give up his fiscal conservatism when pressured? Perhaps not—but at the same time, it is curious that he would flip-flop on this issue so close to the Iowa caucuses.

Meanwhile, Donald Trump’s only stated positions on farming put him directly in the pocket of Big Ag—as Tim Carney puts it over at the Washington Examiner, “he confuses pro-business corporatism with pro-market free enterprise.” Carney reports that Trump has attacked Cruz for his stance against ethanol mandates and subsidies, while declaring his own support for the industry. “His full-throated support for the ethanol mandate puts no room between him and Hillary, who has never met a corporate handout she didn’t like,” notes Carney.

As the most successful establishment Republican in the race thus far, it seems unlikely that Marco Rubio would be willing to fight the Big Ag lobbyists on such measures as the Farm Bill; for one, he’s a huge supporter of sugar subsidies as a Florida senator. On the campaign trail in Iowa, he was reluctant to speak up against the ethanol mandate, and chose to do so in a limited fashion—seemingly in order to stay on the good side of Iowa voters. His website’s stated platform on agriculture includes repealing “burdensome regulations” on farmers in the energy and conservation realm, but doesn’t touch on the Farm Bill.

Rand Paul, one of the few Republicans willing to oppose Big Ag cronyism, just dropped out of the 2016 race. But this may prove beneficial for fiscal conservatives long-term, as it enables him to continue pushing for fiscal conservatism in the Senate. In 2012, reports BallotPedia, Paul introduced an amendment to limit farm subsidies to those whose income is more than $250,000. “My friends across the aisle are commonly saying why don’t those of means pay more or receive less? This amendment would do precisely that,” he said on the Senate floor. “Currently nine percent of farmers are receiving nearly a third of the benefits. … I think this should change and that the wealthy shouldn’t be receiving farm subsidies.” When he originally launched his campaign, Paul told supporters that “I will place common sense and reasonable limitations on a bureaucracy that seeks to target well-intentioned businesses with burdensome regulations.” This is needed for U.S. agriculture—and hopefully Paul will continue this work on the Hill, no matter who resides in the White House.

The two democrats contending for the presidency, meanwhile, carry two different views on the problems we have with agriculture, writesGrist’s Nathaniel Johnson. While Clinton holds what Johnson calls the “underinvestment theory” of farm failure, focusing more on spending money than on reigning in cronyism, Sanders adheres to “the ‘unfairness theory’ of farm failure,” arguing that small and midsize farms “are being held down by unfair competition from foreign trade, big agribusiness, and the government subsidies that support the largest farmers.” Unlike many in the 2016 race, Sanders recognizes the frustrating cronyism entrenched in our agricultural system—practices that prevent small and midsize farms from flourishing, while lending a hand to the market’s biggest players.

“It is unacceptable that just four corporations control 82% of the nation’s beef cattle market, 85% of soybean processing, and 63% of pork processing,” Sanders’s website states. “It is unacceptable that there are over 300,000 fewer farmers than there were 20 years ago. It is unacceptable that the top 10% of farms collect 75% of farm subsidies, while the bottom 62% do not receive any subsidies. We have to adopt policies that will turn this around. He also expresses support for local and regional food systems: “Farmers throughout the country are boosting their bottom line and reinvigorating their communities by selling directly to local consumers, institutions, and restaurants. Senator Sanders will invest in this movement, helping Americans support local farms.”

But it seems unlikely that Sanders’s support for regional food systems would result in support for local food freedom laws, which enable farmers to sell to informed consumers without being subject to the usual licensure, permitting, certification, inspection, packaging, or labeling requirements by state agencies. It’s the sort of thing libertarians rally around—but would a socialist like Sanders be willing to support such a movement away from the directive power of the state?

Additionally, Sanders’s stated goals as president are focused on reversing trade policies like NAFTA, enforcing antitrust laws, and increasing monetary supports to rural America—without addressing the Farm Bill’s bloated subsidies or crop insurance programs. Though he opposes government supports for the top 10 percent of farmers in theory, one wonders how he would practically fight such supports without tackling the overreaching arm of Washington. He has recognized the perils of Big Ag—but not the connected perils of big government.

Anti-establishment candidates such as Cruz and Sanders have shown a past willingness to shake up Washington with their opposition to cronyism. Cruz has demonstrated at least some loyalty to fiscal conservatism and fighting big government; Sanders is willing to fight corrupt big business interests and stand up for small farmers who need a voice. If one were to combine these two loyalties, we’d have the perfect candidate: but as it stands, U.S. agriculture seems likely to face the complications of corruption and excess oversight in 2016 and beyond.

about the author

Gracy Olmstead is a writer and journalist located outside Washington, D.C. In addition to The American Conservative, she has written for The Washington Times, the Idaho Press Tribune, The Federalist, and Acculturated. Follow Gracy on Twitter @GracyOlmstead.

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