Rocky Barker: Farm Bill loss plows under rural GOP clout

Idaho StatesmanJuly 1, 2013 

A farmer works a field in Idaho in 2012.

KATHERINE JONES — Idaho Statesman file

The defeat of the farm bill in the House completes a shift in politics and voting that has been taking place since 1995.

The shift initially strengthened the Republican hold on Western states as more affluent farmers tapped into farm subsidies and price supports while rejecting Democrats for hindering logging, mining and ranching on public lands. But in the past decade, Republicans have come up against the same problem Democrats had since the Reagan era: Their core ideology no longer fits their traditional base.

The core of Republican support in Western states has shifted from its rural voters to suburban GOP voters - many of whom migrated from California. The central issues for many of these voters is taxes.

These new migrants moved around cities like Boise, Salt Lake, Spokane, Colorado Springs and Reno and brought their jobs or retirement incomes with them. They had no ties to the traditional farming, timber and ranching industries that all were dependent on government.

Despite the Reagan rhetoric, Republicans in Western and plains states long supported farm programs. Until the 1990s, they couched their support in the hope that farm programs eventually would be unnecessary - if the federal government would only develop trade and food policies that would allow farmers to thrive in the free market.

They finally put the ideology into law in 1996 with the Freedom to Farm Act.

The law increased farm subsidies and removed most of the limits on what crops could be grown where. When world crop prices dropped in the late 1990s, the program turned into an obvious failure.

Congress had to remove the phase-outs and essentially keep the dole coming, whether the land was farmed or not. In some states, like Montana, half of all farm income came in the mail from the federal government to upper-middle-class farmers, many of whom had sold their equipment.

When Idaho newspapers did a series on rural Idaho in 2002, we found a third of Idaho's farm income in 2000 came in checks from Uncle Sam. When the last farm bill was passed in 2001, few of the disparities were cured.

The power of Republican farmers remained so strong that even a tea party favorite, Republican Rep. Bill Sali, of Idaho, voted for farm subsidies. Earlier this month, the House voted down the farm bill. It had dumped the subsidies, but replaced them with a new insurance program that could end up costing the federal government even more.

The long political compromise between farm programs and food stamps had fallen apart. Idaho Republican Rep. Raul Labrador felt safe enough to vote against the bill despite the uncertainty it presents for Idaho's farm economy. Just as he did earlier, when he voted for deep cuts to the Idaho National Laboratory, Labrador was counting on his GOP base to support his stand on principle over state interests.

On Thursday, Republican Sens. Jim Risch and Mike Crapo voted against the immigration reform bill despite the strong support of the Idaho ag community. Suburban conservatives outweigh farmers, even in Idaho.

The Democrats saw a similar shift in the 1980s when many rural woodworkers and small farmers who had voted for Democrats since Franklin Roosevelt's time left the party. Historically, Democrats could count on getting many rural voters who recognized their livelihoods were tied to federal farm programs, federal water projects or the labor unions that survived in timber country.

The Farm Bill of 1985 changed the formula for subsidies, so that truly small farmers no longer could survive without outside income. Eventually they all but disappeared, replaced in the farm workplace by non-voting migrants.

In the 1980s, labor unions were weakened nationally and by state right-to-work laws. Union Democrats no longer turned out miners and woodworkers who voted for Republicans because of their anger with national Democratic support for environmentalists.

Look across the West. In New Mexico, Colorado, Nevada and even Montana, Democrats are again gaining a foothold as rural areas lose clout to cities, and deep budget cuts inflict pain.

If Labrador's political calculation is right, it will be Republicans like Rep. Mike Simpson - who voted for the farm bill - and Crapo - long one of the strongest defenders of the sugar support program - who will pay.

But Democrats, who have no ideological opposition to helping rural areas with programs that can garner support in urban America, also may benefit. Republicans divisions create openings for Democrats.

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