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Friday, May 1, 1992

Gaining Access: Congress and the Farm Lobby, 1919-1981


One of the great political oddities today is the continuing power of the farm lobby in the industrialized West. Farmers make up the majority of the population in Third World countries, yet they are routinely robbed by their governments. In contrast, in the United States, Europe, and Japan, farmers regularly use their governments to rob everyone else.

This phenomenon—the ability of concentrated interest groups to dominate the political process—has been explored by public choice economists. Most special interests have lobbying and trade organizations operating in Washington, and farmers are no exception. Hansen’s book focuses on the relative influence of such agricultural groups as the Farm Bureau.

What is the impact of lobbies on legislation, asks Hansen? “The decisive stage of interest group influence,” he argues, “is the choice of the problems and pressures to which to respond. Lobbies achieve influence in Congress to the degree that legislators choose their counsel, to the degree that legislators grant them access.”

Although the U.S. began its life as an agricultural nation, farmers’ political influence was for years relatively limited. Until 1920 rural areas accounted for the majority of America’s population, yet, writes Hansen, “Congress had traditionally rebuffed agrarian demands for direct intervention in the agricultural marketplace.” That began to change in the 1920s, however.

At that time there were some 8,600 different farm organizations, but the multiplicity of voices worked against their lobbying efforts. Observes Hansen, “working with the farm groups was hardly more efficient than starting from scratch.” Then four of the largest lobbies set up shop in Washington: the American Farm Bureau Federation, Farmers National Council, National Board of Farm Organizations, and National Grange of Patrons of Husbandry. Of these, the Farm Bureau, with a large and geographically broad-based membership, became the most influential.

The first major farm lobby victory came in 1921, when Congress passed a package of six bills, including an extension of the War Finance Corporation’s authority to make agricultural loans. But farmers’ objectives were relatively modest then. Observes Hansen, “only six months after its great victory, [the Farm Bloc] ran out of things to do.”

As the agricultural market slumped, the farm lobby soon thought of new benefits to demand, however. Farmers organized against what they saw as the do-nothing Coolidge administration, then intensified their campaign for subsidies as the U.S. fell into the Great Depression. Not surprisingly, President Franklin Roosevelt was sympathetic to the farmers’ demands, so he advanced the Agricultural Adjustment Act, “the fruit of the farm lobby’s decade-long labor,” writes Hansen.

The act was quite popular, despite being overturned by the Supreme Court. And legislators got the message. Reports Hansen:

 

[E]lections in the 1930s consistently underscored the farm lobby’s competitive advantage. The Farm Bureau’s prominence in the passage and administration of the Agricultural Adjustment Act enabled it to stabilize and expand its membership, especially in the South, where in the late 1930s membership increased tenfold, to more than one hundred thousand. In the minds of voters and politicians alike, the close association between the farm organizations and the Triple A program turned farm state elections into tests of their mandate, and the supporters of government aid to agriculture won many more than they lost.

 

Republicans as well as Democrats endorsed New Deal farm policies. Thus began nearly two decades of bipartisan subservience to farm interests. In fact, there was little that the Farm Bloc wanted that it did not get. “In sheer reputation for power, the agricultural organizations reigned alongside the business lobbies and the labor unions as the ‘Big Three’ of American politics,” observes Hansen.

Farmers’ political clout persisted even as the number of rural residents fell. But power was redistributed within the agricultural lobby. In the 1950s the Farm Bureau lost its pre-eminence. Its enthusiasm for subsidies lagged behind that of many farmers, and its leadership was seen as too closely allied with the Republican Eisenhower administration. The Democrats were only too happy to respond with a bidding war in which taxpayers were the losers.

The Kennedy administration fared little better than its predecessor, and Republican legislators were soon using agriculture policy to oust Democrats. By 1965, however, bipartisanship returned, with Republicans and Democrats uniting to mulct non-farmers. Thereafter, writes Hansen, “the distinctions between Republican and Democratic farm policy blurred, except among a handful of conservative Republican and liberal Democratic ideologues.”

Not that there weren’t differences between presidents and congresses. Presidents Nixon, Carter, and Reagan all tried in their own ways to limit farm spending, but Congress consistently upped the ante. Capitol Hill’s generosity with the American people’s money was due in no small part to the continuing influence of the different agricultural groups.

The Farm Bureau, however, never regained its pre-eminence. Instead, Congress turned increasingly to specific commodity groups, such as dairymen. “Their competitive advantage lay in part in specialization,” writes Hansen, but two other factors came into play. One was that these groups tended to support existing agricultural programs during the 1950s and 1960s while the Farm Bureau worked against them; the other is that such groups were more interventionist than the relatively conservative Farm Bureau.

Gaining Access is not primarily about the substance of farm policy, but it does give an occasional glimpse of the craziness of federal programs. In the late 1940s, for instance, the Commodity Credit Corporation purchased fully one-fourth of the potato crop, torching some of the surplus. But while “editorial writers raged in protest, and Congress launched an investigation,” reports Hansen, the subsidies continued. The House Agriculture Committee, for instance, “greeted the uproar with exceptional calm. It warned potato growers that they had one more chance to get their house in order before Congress abandoned them, but it assured them that whatever kind of program they wanted, the Committee would get it for them.”

And farm state legislators could do so because urban Democrats, whose poor constituents are most injured by the higher taxes and prices engendered by farm programs, consistently supported agricultural subsidies. They did so for several reasons, in Hansen’s view: “the small, hidden impact of agricultural subsidies on consumer prices,” “the relative safety of [urban congressmen's] seats,” and the Democrats’ use of agricultural policy for partisan advantage. When urban support seemed to wane in the 1960s, rural legislators thoughtfully offered food stamp appropriations in exchange for continued votes for farm programs.

The 1970s was a decade of consumer activism, but these groups exercised virtually no influence on farm policy. The basic problem is that it is hard to organize a large, diffuse mass of people who have less at stake than do members of opposing organizations, such as farmers. Without active popular support, consumer advocates cannot interest legislators in their issues or perspectives. Explains Hansen: “The consumer movement’s problem in breaking farm producers’ hold on food policy was obvious. Before 1973, the salience of farm policy to urban voters was too low to justify substantial investments of their representatives’ time, or even a membership on the House Agriculture Committee.”

In succeeding years, a few urban legislators joined the Agriculture Committee in order to raise consumer concerns. But they found themselves routinely outvoted by the coalition of farm program and food stamp advocates. Rural legislators were particularly careful to log-roll within the agricultural community, bundling farm programs in an attempt to generate a “one-for-all and all-for-one” attitude amongst farmers. All too often such tactics brought, and still bring, the farm lobby victory.

This year the federal government is spending almost $1.5 trillion, double just 10 years ago. Even under avowedly conservative administrations, Washington has proved to be a seemingly limitless cornucopia for the well-connected. And for 70 years few have been as influential as farmers. John Mark Hansen’s Gaining Access makes great teaching for anyone who wants a better understanding of the ups and downs of farm politics and how the agricultural lobby continues so efficiently to loot the public.

Doug Bandow is a Senior Fellow at the Cato Institute and the author of The Politics of Plunder: Misgovernment in Washington.


  • Doug Bandow is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute and the author of a number of books on economics and politics. He writes regularly on military non-interventionism.