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Posted on  

July 22, 2002

Farmers Retain Political Clout as Numbers Decline


WASHINGTON -- Farming and ranching may be the occupations expected to lose the most employees over the next decade, but you would never know it from the industry's clout in Washington.

Despite criticism at home and abroad, a $190 billion, 10-year farm bill has cleared Congress, marking a spending increase of 77.5 percent.

Still, farmers and ranchers are seeking an additional $2.4 billion in emergency aid for lost crops and livestock last year. And the Department of Agriculture, which already has about one employee, excluding Forest Service workers, for every 33 farms in the country, is hiring 1,000 more workers to implement the farm bill.

Why does this industry, which represents a dwindling percentage of the economy, keep getting lots of attention from Washington?

It's not because of campaign contributions, which are not as large as those of many other industries and come largely from commodity groups benefiting from narrowly tailored programs, including sugar, peanut and milk subsidies.

Instead, the farm industry's influence is a combination of several factors, including the role agriculture played historically in this country, the key positions held by lawmakers from farm states, and the political realities of the 2002 elections.

"Agriculture is special," said Steffen Schmidt, a professor of political science at Iowa State University. "Agriculture and rural areas in the year 2002 still preserve a sort of mythical significance. Farmers are out there producing one of the staples without which human beings just can't live."

It doesn't matter that there are fewer of them producing these days and the decline has been among the small and medium-sized farmers while corporate farms are growing.

The Department of Labor estimates that, between 2000 and 2010, the number of farmers and ranchers will decline 25 percent, the largest drop of any industry.

Still, every state still has some farming, and that gives the industry an advantage in the Senate. Every senator includes farmers in his or her constituency, and senators from the smaller, rural states, can have as much power or more as those from the most urban state.

A prime example is Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle. The Democrat represents South Dakota, the fifth smallest state by population, where 8 percent of its workers are engaged in crop and livestock production -- four times the national rate. Farm organizations -- and agribusiness groups -- remain a dominant political force in his state.

Daschle made sure wheat farmers got a good deal in the farm bill and has also pushed for increasing the amount of corn-based ethanol used as an additive in gasoline.

Another Democratic Dakotan -- North Dakota Sen. Kent Conrad -- used his chairmanship of the Senate Budget Committee to increase the amount of money budgeted for farm programs.

In the House, Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., also represents a district where farmers collected $554 million in subsidies from 1996 to 2000, according to the Environmental Working Group.

The industry received attention this year, some lawmakers say, for political reasons. The House and Senate are closely divided and many of the races that could tip the balance of power from one party to the other are in agricultural areas. That's a main reason critics of the farm bill, including Sen. Dick Lugar, R-Ind., give for why the bill was approved, despite its huge price tag.

Six states that get heavy farm subsidies also have some of the closest Senate races this year. The outcome of races in South Dakota ($2.5 billion in subsidies), Iowa ($6.75 billion), Minnesota ($4.5 billion), Missouri ($2.6 billion), Texas ($5.99 billion) and Arkansas ($2.8 billion) could determine control of the Senate.  


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