The fight has been a long time coming. Tough-minded GOP tea party members tied up the 2012 Farm Bill until it became the 2014 Farm Bill. The Heritage Foundation, the influential conservative think-tank that aided the tea partiers, however, refused to surrender.
On May 5, Heritage issued a 10-point broadside it described as “alternatives … beyond the status quo of central planning and subsidies” for U.S. ag policy.
The report's points hit most farmer and rancher hot buttons — free trade, property rights, over-regulation — and all of the tea party's really hot buttons: free trade, property rights and over-regulation.
Heritage's hotter buttons, however, glow white by what it sees as the hypocrisy at the center of almost every federal farm policy.
For example, while most farmers and ranchers believe they operate in a “free market,” Heritage explains, government “loans, price and revenue guarantees … import barriers, payments to idle land, marketing orders and subsidized crop insurance” have nothing to do with free markets and everything to do with “Depression-era relics grounded in central planning philosophies.”
Worse, it says, free markets have nothing in common with things named “the sugar program and the Renewable Fuels Standard.” Ouch.
While Heritage and ranchers and farmers can agree on broad topics like the loss of free markets and the rise of government red tape, the niceties end when specifics — say, crop insurance subsidies and ethanol mandates — are mentioned.
And all talking will stop when talk turns to the idea that “government should not intervene … to ensure that farmers are profitable, as through the 'shallow loss' program that protects farmers from even minor losses.”
The very idea that the heavily Republican, deeply conservative Heritage Foundation would attack federal farm programs devised, endorsed and used by the mostly Republican, largely conservative farm and ranch folk is unheard of.
And it didn't go unanswered.
On May 16, an ag lobby named Farm Policy Facts fired back. The Heritage report, it noted on its website, “departs from the respected analysis Heritage was once known for in favor of what appears to be the talking point of donors.”
It's part of a clear pattern Heritage now practices, asserted the group that includes the American Sugar Alliance, National Crop Insurance Services, National Association of Wheat Growers, National Cotton Council and the USA Rice Federation, among others.
“Heritage increasingly starts with the answer to any policy question they want and then cherry pick information in order to arrive at their desired conclusion.” Most of those conclusions, it offered, are “unworthy of a think tank that years ago … was credible.”
Unworthy or not, the central question Heritage raises isn't about ethanol mandates or crop insurance subsidies.
Instead it's about the future of the modern welfare state, the dominant feature of today's government, and how special interests — from banks to military contractors to academia and to even, yes, farmers and ranchers – personally benefit from “public” policy as much as the public. That's a fight worth having and one we will have sooner or later.
But don't expect it soon because as Will Rogers also noted, “There are three kinds of men: the ones that learn by reading, the few who learn by observation and the rest who have to touch an electric fence.”