Iowa Public Television


Farm Programs Take a Backseat in Presidential Election

posted on October 31, 2008

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Responding to the Arab oil embargo of 1973, President Richard Nixon vowed to make the United States energy independent within seven years. Next week mark's the 35th anniversary of Nixon's pledge and America is still waiting.

For rural America, the stakes couldn't be higher. To date, the predominant alternative fuel being consumed in America is ethanol. Rapid expansion of the ethanol industry has fueled a boom in commodity prices over the past couple of years. This past June, concerns over a reduced corn crop, pushed nearby futures prices to an all-time high of $7.88 per bushel.

But the viability of renewable fuels like ethanol is heavily influenced by U.S. farm policy. And as Andrew Batt explains in our final report on the politics of alternative energy, the future of U.S. farm policy is anything but clear.

Government farm programs have been a centerpiece of rural policy for more than sixty years, and the two would-be Presidents have differing approaches to the role of Washington in the Agricultural corners of America.

The matchup of two sitting U.S. Senators gives voters an insight into their opinions and votes on federal farm programs. Sen. John McCain, a 26-year Congressional veteran, has voted on countless farm legislation throughout his career and his opinions on current policy have caught the attention of farm advocacy groups.

Tom Buis, President National Farmers Union: "I have been in Washington for 20 years working on agriculture issues and John McCain has never been farmer friendly in his votes."

Tom Buis, President of the 250,000-member National Farmers Union, says Senator McCain has consistently clashed with farm groups on everything from ethanol subsidies to general government support for agricultural commodities.

But Buis adds the Arizona Senator may be focusing his efforts on the issues of southwestern constituents – and not the nationwide farm community.

Tom Buis, President National Farmers Union: "Its different being President of all 50 states as opposed to Senator from Arizona and he may change those views but so far it doesn't seem that he has. He went to Iowa and said he would veto the farm bill and very few of his colleagues in Washington felt that way."

Sen. John McCain, R-Arizona: "It's time for a little straight talk my friends about the farm bill on Capitol Hill. I would veto it my friends." (Iowa Town Hall)

In what campaign supporters call classic John McCain, the Republican nominee called for a veto of the 2008 farm bill in the heart of the nation's leading corn state. At the time, a veto threat was echoed by President Bush – who eventually followed through on the warning. President Bush and McCain viewed the farm bill as an example of "wasteful" government spending. But McCain and Obama's fellow Senators found overwhelming bipartisan support for the farm bill on Capitol Hill.

The agriculture legislation passed with 82 out of 100 Senators voting in the affirmative. Senators McCain and Obama were absent from the vote and on the campaign trail but there intentions were clear. McCain's pledge to veto if he was President and Senator Obama's pledge to vote in favor if the farm bill vote was too close to call.

Sen. Saxby Chambliss, R-Georgia: "If he'd vetoed it we had 82 votes to override his veto. My friend George Bush vetoed it. Ya know, John really isn't tuned into agriculture and he and I have had a number of conversations about it and the important thing is as President of the United States John McCain will implement the 2007 farm bill as it was intended."

Georgia Republican Saxby Chambliss is a McCain supporter and a point man for southern agriculture issues in the U.S. Senate. Chambliss argues that defenders of farm programs on Capitol Hill will keep a potential President McCain in tune to agriculture.

Sen. Saxby Chambliss, R-Georgia: "From an ag perspective you've got folks like me, Pat Roberts, and the Chuck Grassleys of the world that certainly have the ear of John McCain. He is someone that will listen to us but may not agree with everything we say."

The nation's largest farm group, the American Farm Bureau, has disagreed with McCain in the past on farm programs and has not had success in changing his views.

Anne Steckel, Director of Congressional Relations, National Farm Bureau Federation: "Obviously, we supported the farm bill and thought it was a great compromise. We realize it wasn't a perfect bill but it was a great bill and we were very supportive of it. We were disappointed that Senator McCain made those comments because the negotiations were great and if he was elected President we would certainly look to work with him and change his views on agriculture."

Anne Steckel, the Director of Congressional Relations for the National Farm Bureau Federation, adds that Senator Obama's views on farm policy may be geographically aligned.

Anne Steckel, Director of Congressional Relations, National Farm Bureau Federation: "Being from a farm state like Illinois, Senator Obama has had a long standing policy of supporting biofuels and his policy positions have had a long-standing history of reflecting that."

Senator Barack Obama has been in the U.S. Senate for nearly four years and during that time, the Illinois Democrat pledged support for government farm programs.

Obama supporter and former Senate Majority leader Tom Daschle believes the candidates' division over farm legislation could change the electoral landscape in rural America.

Fmr. Sen. Tom Daschle, D-South Dakota: "I don't think there is any doubt that John McCain is not going to get the farm vote. I think he realizes that he doesn't have a record that deserves the farm vote and you are going to see Barack Obama do very well even among Republicans who would vote against him for other reasons see the importance of agriculture this year."

But that notion faces the cold reality of recent history. In the 2004 election, Republican President George W. Bush routed Democratic Senator John Kerry throughout rural agriculture counties across the country. In addition to electoral records, McCain supporters believe the Arizona Senator will fare strongly in farm country on the issue of free trade.

Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa: "Think of John McCain and farming generally. Ethanol is a very important thing to farmers in America but it doesn't hold a candle to free trade. Obama wants to rehash every trade deal we have and John McCain is a free-trader."

During a Democratic primary debate, Senator Obama agreed with his opponent Hillary Clinton that the United States should reexamine trade deals like the landmark 1993 NAFTA agreement. Hoping to collect votes in economically-challenged sections of rural Ohio, the Democratic Senator pledged to cautiously judge future trade agreements and revisit old ones.

The "cautious" approach is at odds with McCain who openly pledges to push free-trade for American farm goods.

Sen. John McCain, R-Arizona: "I oppose ethanol subsidies but I will open up every market in the world to your farm products – the best farm products are made right here in Iowa."

McCain's stance on free trade could give him a boost in certain sectors of rural America. Those free-trade principles are central to his opposition of ethanol subsidies and the ethanol import tariff.

When the two candidates for President were given the option of which government programs could be cut in the face of an unprecedented financial bailout, the Arizona Republican made it clear ethanol subsidies were the first program to go.

Jim Lehrer: What priorities would you adjust, as president, Senator McCain, because of the -- because of the financial bailout cost?

Sen. John McCain, R-Arizona: "…we need to examine every agency of government. First of all, by the way, I'd eliminate ethanol subsidies. I oppose ethanol subsidies."

Asked the same question, Senator Obama declined to name specific programs he would cut and insisted on mentioning the policies he would promote.

Sen. Barack Obama, D-Illinois: "I also think that we're going to have to rebuild our infrastructure, which is falling behind, our roads, our bridges, but also broadband lines that reach into rural communities. Also, making sure that we have a new electricity grid to get the alternative energy to population centers that are using them. So there are some -- some things that we've got to do structurally to make sure that we can compete in this global economy. We can't shortchange those things. We've got to eliminate programs that don't work, and we've got to make sure that the programs that we do have are more efficient and cost less."

In the wake of a historic election, rural farm policy has not received substantial attention. But both candidates have provided clues to their outlook on government's role in agriculture.

For Market to Market, I'm Andrew Batt.


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