COLUMBUS – When push comes to shove, the Farm Belt has a lot of political capital invested in the administration of President George W. Bush.
How agricultural leaders use that capital is another question, said Carl Zulauf, agricultural economist at Ohio State University.
Zulauf calls the 2000 presidential contest the “doughnut election,” in reference to the inner core of states in the agricultural heartland and South that largely went for Bush.
The outer ring of coastal states went for former Vice President Al Gore, who won the overall popular vote but lost in the electoral college.
“Agriculture can legitimately go to George W. Bush and say, ‘We were a reason you were elected.'” Zulauf said. “It’s a real argument. George W. Bush did carry farm country, he did carry it by a big margin, and he didn’t lose the national election by much.”
Another factor in agriculture’s favor is the narrowly divided composition of both houses of Congress, Zulauf said. Both Democrats and Republicans will push hard to increase their seats in the 2002 off-year elections, so lawmakers will be hungry to win support of voting blocs like agriculture, he said.
“In this era of power-sharing in Congress, smaller groups like agriculture should have more political power because the voting margins will be so close,” Zulauf said.
Current farm policy based on the 1996 Freedom to Farm Act expires in 2002. Freedom to Farm hasn’t pleased everyone. Some critics are vocal, but no one has come up with a plausible alternative, Zulauf said.
“It’s not enough not to like Freedom to Farm. You’ve got to have something to replace it with,” he said. “At present, I don’t see where a critical mass of people have coalesced around an alternative.”
Nevertheless, the “doughnut effect” and tight margins in Congress give agriculture significant bargaining chips to set the policy agenda, Zulauf said.
On the other hand, the farm sector is increasingly divided about where it should be headed, he said. The players include:
* The livestock industry, which benefits greatly from cheap grain prices wrought by the Freedom to Farm law.
* Fruit and vegetable growers, who may for the first time emerge as major players because of concerns about free trade agreements that tend to benefit grain and livestock sectors at their expense.
* Traditional, or “core,” regions naturally suited for raising certain commodities, and marginal areas where production is encouraged by farm policy.
No overhaul expected. If history is a guide, don’t expect a major change in farm policy, Zulauf said. Policy has always been an ongoing process of evolution.
But some farm bills, like Freedom to Farm, make major policy changes.
History also instructs that a closely divided Congress rarely rocks the boat, Zulauf said. Congressional members like sticking to the familiar formula of existing policies rather than “tick somebody off out there and lose their vote,” he said.
Also influencing future farm policy is the economy, Zulauf said. A recession that cuts into federal tax revenues could pressure cuts in farm spending, he said. If relative prosperity prevails, Congress’ generosity will be matched by the size of the budget surplus.
Another factor is the farm sector’s supply-and-demand balance, he said. “A surplus situation with low prices leads to a very different set of concerns than a strong demand situation with high prices.”
In addition, a broad philosophical question is waiting in the wings, Zulauf said. “What is the general society getting from farm programs that justifies these ever-growing expenditures that go to less than 1 percent of the population?” Zulauf asks. “I think that question just sets there and will drive this country’s agricultural policy in the long run.”