Talkin' Farm Bill Blues

Dan Piller was a business reporter for more than four decades, working for the Des Moines Register and the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. He covered the oil and gas industry while in Texas and was the Register’s agriculture reporter before his retirement in 2013. He lives in Ankeny.

These are unhappy days for U.S. Representative Randy Feenstra (IA-04) and his fellow Republican Congresspeople from Iowa (there are no other kind).

Feenstra & co. have essentially one job: to get a Farm Bill passed every five years. The Farm Bill isn’t a radically new thing; Congress has passed them since 1933. The current Farm Bill expires on September 30. On that very day, by a cruel confluence, so do current federal appropriations, which sets up another one of those wearing government shutdown crises.

The problem for Feenstra and his fellow members of the corncob lobby is that this time, the focus of the shutdown may be agricultural spending. The House Freedom Caucus, whose most public faces are right-wing screamers Jim Jordan of Ohio, Lauren Boebert of Colorado, and Matt Gaetz of Florida, demanded cuts in Farm Bill spending and their truculence has held up passage.

The Iowans and other farm state reps had hoped to have the 2023 Farm Bill, and its attendant appropriations, wrapped up before the August recess so as to get agriculture out of the way of the next government shutdown train wreck in early October.

But apparently, it is not to be. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell warned that “time is running out,” and Republican Representative Scott DesJarlais of Tennessee, a Freedom Caucus member, told Politico, “I don’t have a lot of confidence of anything passing the House anymore under the current environment.”

Feenstra isn’t happy about some of his GOP colleagues’ demands. Meredith Lee Hill reported for Politico,

Rep. Randy Feenstra (R-Iowa) said he was “mortified” about some of the cuts to key agriculture programs that Freedom Caucus members were working to secure on Thursday. He added that further cuts to USDA would impact food safety and U.S. agriculture exports that farmers in his state rely on.

Since the job wasn’t finished before Congress went home, Feenstra has to answer to his constituents in rural northwest Iowa.

The Freedom Caucus is sore about a sharp spending increase, from a ten-year average of about $65 billion annually to more than $120 billion this year, for the Department of Agriculture’s Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), formerly known as food stamps. The caucus wants cuts in benefits and tighter work requirements for eligibility, positions that don’t sit well with liberal Democrats who mostly represent big cities.

The Freedom Caucus also found the Farm Bill to be a convenient drop-off for an amendment banning the dispensing of the abortion drug Mifepristone by pharmacies, a surefire bill-killer if there ever was one.

Feenstra, who regards a day when he doesn’t bash a Democratic spending program as “wasteful” or “socialist” as a day he’ll never get back, finds himself as an involuntary advocate of SNAP programs. For a half-century, they have been joined in Farm Bills with the subsidies given to farmers for their insurance premiums, crop protection, emergency aid and to small town economies under the heading of “rural revitalization.”

In case he wearies of the task, Feenstra is reminded by the American Farm Bureau Federation that its number one priority for the 2023 Farm Bill is to “maintain agricultural spending at its current levels.” The Farm Bureau also wants nutritional spending continued to be linked to farm subsidy programs.

Iowa’s members of Congress know full well that if SNAP programs are cut, as the Freedom Caucus is demanding, then their urban counterparts such as House Minority Leader Hakeem Jefferies of Brooklyn (the one in New York, not Iowa), Alexandria Ocasio Cortez, along with Senators Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and Corey Booker of New Jersey, stand ready to fulfill the longtime liberal dream of shoving farm subsidies back in the faces of “conservative” farm state Republicans.

A serious debate (if this Congress is capable of serious debate about any subject) about farm subsidies could touch on how production-oriented payments to farmers have accelerated the consolidation of farming, which in turn has speeded the de-population of rural America.

There might also be a discussion of agriculture’s penchant for subsidized fencerow-to-fencerow planting, which environmentalists consider to be an original sin leading to water pollution.

Questions might also be raised about subsidizing corn used for ethanol when the U.S. motor vehicle industry is gradually shifting to electric engines. Some urbanites might wonder out loud why the USDA spends $17 billion to $20 billion annually on “rural redevelopment,” only to see continued decline in rural population.

Someone might be unkind enough to mention that $30,000 per acre sale of farm land in Sioux County, which sits squarely in Feenstra’s district.

Agriculture would just as soon not have those conversations on the floors of Congress. That’s why Feenstra lamented to the Washington Examiner in late July that proposed cuts would be “devastating,” to the Midwest, which he described as “the “breadbasket of the world.”

(He had better hope that the Freedom Caucus and Democrats aren’t regular readers of the USDA’s World Agricultural Supply and Demand Estimates, which showed that in 2022 for the first time in anyone’s memory, Americans imported more food than they sold in world export markets.)

Feenstra’s fellow House Agriculture Committee member from Iowa, first-termer Zach Nunn (IA-03), told the Examiner rather churlishly, “they’re not going to balance the budget on these cuts.”

Somewhere, in that cloakroom in the sky, Bob Dole and George McGovern are smiling.

History knows Republican Dole of Kansas and Democrat McGovern from South Dakota as the unsuccessful presidential nominees of their parties in 1996 and 1972 respectively. But to Agriculture cognoscenti and Capitol Hill insiders, Dole and McGovern laid the political foundation for a half-century of Farm Bills when they included both Food Stamps and farm subsidies in the same legislation.

The two prairie politicians had taken notice of the Sanders vs. Wesbury U.S. Supreme Court decision in 1964, which made “one man, one vote” basic law and began the long, slow retreat of the strength of rural interests in Congress and state legislatures.

The 1970 U.S. Census had shown, once again, that the percentage of Americans living in rural areas fell to 26 percent from 35 percent a decade earlier. (The rural percentage is down to 17 percent today.) That put farm subsidies, which in early post world War II years amounted to as much as 50 percent of farm profits, in political peril.

The Dole-McGovern maneuver thus put rural and urban interests together, and it worked. How well was demonstrated in 1995 when Newt Gingrich, the right-wing Republican banty rooster who had become speaker of the House, tried to turn food stamps into a block grant program to be turned over to the states. Liberals smelled a rat and sent the Gingrich initiative to the trash pile. A grateful agricultural establishment bestowed the World Food Prize jointly on Dole and McGovern in 2008.

But it’s now 2023, and the Freedom Caucus presents a different problem. The conservative contingent has already proved it is a more powerful force than a mere speaker, having unhorsed John Boehner and forced Kevin McCarthy to go fifteen ballots to win the gavel last January.

Iowa’s senior Senator Chuck Grassley may give thanks for the Dole/McGovern rider in his bedtime prayers every night. But the Freedom Caucus is made up of beyond-the-guardrail thinkers like Boebert, who said this year, “I’m tired of this separation of church and state junk; the church is supposed to run the state.” Jordan would happily dismantle the FBI if given half a chance. The Farm Bureau and Grassley probably don’t even want to know what ideas about farming are rolling around in Matt Gaetz’s head.

Its shaping up to be a cold winter for Randy Feenstra.

Top photo of U.S. Representative Randy Feenstra cropped from a picture originally published on his official Facebook page on August 3.

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  • Really interesting essay. Thanks, Dan Piller!

    A major simple reality of conventional Iowa agriculture is that we are destroying our future ability to produce food. Water quality and biodiversity are side casualties. We are losing topsoil, on the average rowcropped acre, more than ten times as fast as it is being replaced. And the topsoil we have left is horribly degraded compared to the astounding soils found by the first EuroAmerican settlers. A top ISU soil expert has called Iowa the world’s largest, shallowest strip mine. The current Farm Bill subsidy system is helping to keep the destruction going.

    As the Congressional Farm Bill debates roil around SNAP and exports, that major simple reality is something to keep in mind. I doubt if Randy Feenstra will.

    • You’re right.

      Iowa has been a socialist state since the ‘30’s as been pointed out. The Freedom Caucus is cutting support in rural areas where they’re the strongest. Damn fools.

      As far as the environment I always ask the screamers on the left how we’re supposed to make a living? Most of us are not UI academics sitting on high shaking their finger in our faces. When you talk of changing our economy what some hear is “I’m going to lose my job, my home, my family because of your little crusade.”

      Green jobs. It would take years for those to come.

      Environmentalists are the most clueless, out of touch people in the state.

      • I will try to clarify my comment...

        …by saying that what I would like Congress to do is to reform the Farm Bill in terms of structure and spending so that our tax dollars will subsidize much more natural-resource protection and much less natural-resource destruction. And a major reason I want that is so the Iowa landscape can continue to produce abundant food in the distant future, which it will not be able to do if soil loss continues at current rates. Already, soil researchers recently reported, one-third of the Upper Midwest Corn Belt has lost all its topsoil. What is being farmed is subsoil, and yields are being affected. And that is apart from what farm pollution is doing to the fishing industry in the Gulf.

        A smart person once said something close to “If we do not allow the land to produce beauty as well as food, it will, in the end, produce neither.”