Monday, July 15, 2013

Researchers say political sway of farmers in key districts means more than political donations

House Republicans passed a farm bill that doesn't include food stamps — a program that typically makes up the bulk of these bills — but does include crop insurance and commodity supports that will cost taxpayers about $195 billion over 10 years, and adds "a new shallow loss income entitlement program, tossing in new protections for sugar production and ensuring that price supports for crops don’t sunset in 2018," Brad Plumer writes for The Washington Post. "Why are lawmakers so willing to vote for farm subsidies — even lawmakers who usually oppose government spending? After all, only a small fraction of the U.S. population even farms anymore."

Here's a possible answer: A research paper that is still a work in progress by Duke University economist Marc Bellemare and political scientist Nicholas Carnes says that farmers and farm owners have disproportionate political sway in key districts, Plumer writes. The paper looks which lawmakers were former farmers, how many farm owners and managers were in lawmakers’ districts, and at farm-and-food PAC's' campaign contributions -- which are turning out to be less influential than many might expect.

"One explanation that almost always explains support for agricultural protection is the electoral pressure a legislator faces, i.e., the proportion of her constituents who are farm owners or farm managers,” the paper says, adding that "Lawmakers with high levels of poverty in their districts are actually less likely to favor farm subsidies. This suggests that the traditional set-up of farm bills — where food stamps are included to create an urban-rural alliance — has in fact made it much easier for the previous farm bills to pass."

Other things, like lobbying or a politician’s farm background, can also matter, but they have a weaker effect, Plumer writes. "The average number of direct agricultural constituents in a House district was only about 1 or 2 percent, but those voters care a lot about farm policy. And most other voters don’t care much about farm policy at all — and are unaware of the costs of agricultural subsidies." (Read more)

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