Letters From the West

Farm bill defeat completes shift that’s been going on since early 90s

 A farmer beds a field west of Twin Falls.  ASHLEY SMITH — ASSOCIATED PRESS

A farmer beds a field west of Twin Falls.

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 continued to tap into the farm subsidy and price support system that was crucial to their high-capital business. Meanwhile, they effectively demonized Democrats for hindering logging, mining and ranching on public lands.

But more recently Republicans have come up against the same problem Democrats have had since the Reagan era – their core ideology no longer fits their traditional base.

The core of Republican support in western states remains its rural voters but suburban GOP voters — many who have migrated from California — have diluted the power of rural voters. The central issues for many of these voters is taxes.

These new migrants moved to such cities as Boise, Salt Lake, Spokane, Colorado Springs and Reno and brought their jobs or their retirement incomes with them.

These folks have no ties to the farming, timber, ranching and mining industries, which western Republicans had long defended.

Despite the Reagan rhetoric about government, 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 requirements to limit what crops could be grown where. When world crop prices dove in the late 1990s, the program turned into an obvious failure.

Congress had to remove the phase-outs and essentially keep the dole coming, no matter if 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 we did a series on rural Idaho in 2002, we found a third of Idaho’s farm income in 2000 came in the mail 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 Tea Party favorite Republican Rep. Bill Sali of Idaho voted for farm subsidies.

This week 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. And the long political compromise between farm programs and food stamps had fallen apart.

Idaho Republican Rep. Raul Labrador felt safe enough to vote against it 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 his state’s interest.

In Idaho we have already seen a split between the Tea Party Republicans and the traditional business-oriented Republicans. These include most farmers who don’t like government telling them what to do, but accept its necessary role in their livelihoods.

This is much of what the Democrats were suffering through in the 1980s and 1990s.

Historically, Democrats could count on getting many rural voters who were members of labor unions or true small farmers who recognized their livelihoods were tied to federal farm programs and federal water projects.

They, as did their urban counterparts, shared in the vision created by Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal that lasted all the way into the 1970s. But as the era of the big water projects died and as the farm economy began transforming in the world of global markets and mega-food corporations, the Democratic farmer faded from the landscape.

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 and were 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 — New Mexico, Colorado, Nevada and even Montana — and Democrats are again gaining a foothold as the rural areas lose clout and the deep cuts inflict their pain.

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

But it also provides a political opening for Democrats, who have no ideological opposition to helping rural areas with programs that can garner support in urban America. There may come a time again soon when Idaho farmers and even woodworkers support Democrats.

Rocky Barker is the energy and environment reporter for the Idaho Statesman and has been writing about the West since 1985. He is the author of Scorched Earth How the Fires of Yellowstone Changed America and co-producer of the movie Firestorm: Last Stand at Yellowstone, which was inspired by the book and broadcast on A&E Network. He also co-authored the Flyfisher's Guide to Idaho and the Wingshooter's Guide to Idaho with Ken Retallic. He also was on the Statesman’s team that covered the Sen. Larry Craig sex scandal, which was one of three Pulitzer Prize finalists in breaking news in 2007. The National Wildlife Federation awarded him its Conservation Achievement Award.

Posted in Letters from the West