A Tale of Two Legacies

By Mark Edelman and Barry Flinchbaugh

© Copyright Agri-Pulse Communications, Inc.



ME.  Professor, when the Cooperative Extension Service was started 100 years ago, the farm population peaked at 32 million, and over half the 100 million people in the U.S. lived in rural America.  By 1960, the farm population was cut in half to 15.6 million and our national population grew to 180 million.  So in 50 years, the rural population went from over 50 percent of the national population down to 30 percent and the farm population declined from 32 percent of the national population to less than 9 percent.  

BF. So what's your point? Another 50 years have passed. Today, farm population is less than 2 percent of national population and rural population is less than 16 percent of national population.  Sounds like you are paraphrasing Secretary Vilsack's message that rural America and agriculture are in danger of becoming irrelevant in the modern political era-which is a message many in rural America don't want to hear even though tough medicine is exactly what rural America needs if it wants to take action to become more relevant in the future during attempts to get Farm Bills passed.     

ME.  My point: Farm Bills began in an era when agriculture and rural America had direct impact on the livelihoods of a majority of our nation's population.  By the 1960s and 70s, a smart bi-partisan coalition of national ag policy leaders from rural states figured out that Farm Bills would not pass Congress unless the jurisdiction of the Ag Committees expanded to include food assistance, environment, and rural development.  Rural America was losing voting strength, but it still took a majority of 50 percent plus one in Congress to pass Farm Bills or any other piece of legislation. Now the Des Moines Register opines to Iowans that Congress ought to separate food programs from the Farm Bill and your Kansas Congressman introduced a bill to do just that.

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BF.  Well the idea is nuts, and the Register isn't in business to look out for agriculture and rural interests.  House Leadership says it failed to pass a Farm Bill because of squabbling among House Members who wanted to cut food stamps more and others who wanted to cut agriculture more.  What are the chances of anything passing if we divided the comprehensive bill into a separate Food Bill and a separate Farm Bill?  Zero.

ME.  Speaker Boehner apparently agrees with you since he relieved your Kansas Congressman from House Ag Committee Membership.  Actually, I would give higher odds for Food Bill passage than a separate Farm Bill. Unemployment is higher than pre-recession rates, poverty is up in most Congressional Districts, and 25 percent of our children are now growing up in low income families impacted by school lunch and food stamps.  On the other hand, the common perception is that U.S. farmers are relatively well off with recent record farm incomes and with land values hitting new highs. 

BF.  Congress only passed an extension of the expired 2008 Farm Bill, so the Ag Committees will start over with newly reformed committees.  Senator Cochran (R) of Mississippi replaces Senator Roberts (R) as Ranking Minority Member of the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition, and Forestry.  Unlike the Democrats, the Republicans have not learned how to ignore self-imposed term limits on seniority.  Since Senator Cochran could not continue as Ranking Member on Appropriations, he moved back to Ranking Minority leadership on the Senate Ag Committee.   

ME.  Colleagues form the South suggest that restores some leadership balance between Southern Ag interests of cotton, peanuts, and rice versus Northern wheat, corn and soybeans. The Senate Committee Members are not finalized.  However, the North Central Region will likely have the largest regional representation, similar to the 2012 Committee.  Senator Debbie Stabenow (D) of Michigan will be retained as Chair and as you said, Senator Thad Cochran (R) of Mississippi who was Chair during 2003-2005 will become the Minority Ranking Member.  The Senate Committee will have 21 Members with 11 Democrats and 10 Republicans.  

BF.  The 2013 House Ag Committee will have 46 members with 25 Republicans and 21 Democrats.  Chairman Frank Lucas (R) from Oklahoma will be retained along with Ranking Member Collin Peterson (D) of Minnesota.  A regional breakdown by Jim Novak, an Auburn University colleague, shows that so far 16 House Ag Committee Members are from the South, 13 are from the North-Central Region; 9 from the West, 6 from the Northeast, and 2 are yet to be named. Six are women and 3 are Hispanic.

ME.  President Obama asked former Iowa Governor Tom Vilsack to continue as Secretary of Agriculture, and he agreed.  The Secretary has done a masterful job in balancing disparate interests in one of the most confrontational and acrimonious political environments of moderns times. Secretary Vilsack does his homework and tells it like it is.  If rural leaders use his advice, the next generation will likely still be at the table. The Secretary will have a great legacy including record farm incomes and record land prices.  

BF.  Agreed, however, the President's legacy is an open question.  He had high marks early for keeping financial markets from sinking into a global depression.  But, President Obama will be a footnote in history if he doesn't get his act together on the debt. The President could demonstrate strong leadership by declaring a fiscal emergency and signing an Executive Order to raise the debt ceiling. He can cite the 14th Amendment to the Constitution, which essentially says Congress shall pass no law that impairs the government from paying its bills.  Let the Supreme Court figure out whether Congressional debt ceilings are Constitutional or not.  Finally, the President should send the bi-partisan Simpson-Bowles debt reduction plan to both Houses and request an up or down vote.  If allowed to vote, sufficient Democrats and Republicans would likely approve the measure to pass it.  House leaders would face scheduling a vote or taking blame for not.  By these two actions, the President could address the debt issue and cement his legacy for the history books.   

ME.  If the 2013 Congress is similar to the 2012 Congress, ability to compromise may be short-lived after initial promising theater. Your two step plan makes sense--particularly if the President's other options bog down in a Congressional quagmire of positioning and rhetoric as both parties blame each other for inaction. It's a tale of two possible legacies.

* Edelman is a professor of Economics at Iowa State University and Flinchbaugh is emeritus professor of Agricultural Economics at Kansas State University.  

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