In years past, the Congressional farm coalition was credited with winning approval of the omnibus farm bill. The legislation usually contained something for everyone, ensuring enough votes for passage.
The law, typically running five or more years, provided federal dollars for everything from school lunch programs and food stamps ... to crop subsidies for farmers ... to promotion funds for exporters and even fast food chains, like McDonalds. The glue holding the coalition together was the assurance each member of Congress would have something to take home to constituents. But the political adhesive that bound the coalition may be disintegrating, pulled apart by the disparity between those who receive and those who do not.
The problem can be found in dispersal pattern of government checks. The bulk of the government farm subsidy payments go to a relative handful of farmers, producing a handful of crops. According to a study conducted by the General Accounting Office of the 1999 crop year 12 states received well over half of the government farm payments. Nearly all that money flowed to producers of a few commodities -- feedgrains wheat, soybeans and cotton.
Indeed the composition of congressional agriculture committees reflects the disbursement of government subsidies. Of the 21 members of the Senate Agriculture committee, only one, Vermont Senator Patrick Leahy, is from the East. The rest are all from the Midwest or South. The structure is similar in the 51 member House committee where only two members are from the east.
To counter what he considers years of discrimination against East Coast agricultural interests, Leahy organized the so-called Eggplant Caucus. The bipartisan caucus is composed of Senate members from the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic States. Much of its mission is to get a bigger piece of the government subsidy pie.
Caucus members are warm to the conservation security act, in fact many are co-sponsors. The measure promises to pay farmers to adopt and continue environmentally friendly practices. Members see it as an easy way to redirect the flow of government money to producers of fruit, vegetables and other crops not covered by farm programs.
However as the federal budget tightens it seems more likely the conservation act and the funding of historically favored programs cannot coexist. The fact is the congressional districts that produce those commodities are not likely to give up the largesse without a fight.
The Bush administration this week hinted at changes it wants in farm policy that in many ways would ally the White House with the eggplant caucus. In an interview with the Associated Press, Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman said Congress needs to look beyond traditional support programs for grain and cotton when it overhauls the farm bill. In addition to rethinking support payments, Veneman said the administration would emphasize food safety and environmental programs. The Secretary declined to judge a bill passed by the House Ag Committee in July that would guarantee the continued flow of federal money to grain and cotton farmers.