The United States of Agriculture?

Every year, Congress spends nearly $20 billion and maintains steep trade barriers to benefit a small group of farmers growing one of about half a dozen “program crops.” A hearing on U.S. farm policy before the full House Agricultural Committee today illustrates the problem beautifully.

All farmers together make up less than 2 percent of the U.S. population, and those receiving federal production subsidies or trade protection are less than 1 percent of the population. Yet our farm programs are designed not to serve the interests of the 99+ percent of us who pay the taxes and consume the food, but the small fraction who grow certain favored crops. In fact, U.S. farm programs benefit a small number of producers at the expense the majority and the nation as a whole.

[In a major Cato study last year, we documented six ways that current U.S. farm programs hurt the average American—through higher food prices, lost jobs, more government spending, environmental damage, stifling of rural development, and the undermining of America’s image abroad. We also hosted a policy forum last month featuring the pro-reform Secretary of Agriculture Michael Johanns.]

So why do these programs persist despite their cost to the general public? Classic interest group politics. Agricultural producers, although small in number, are concentrated, well organized, and highly motivated to save programs that can mean big bucks to their bottom line. Meanwhile the mass of consumers and taxpayers, although an overwhelming majority, are diffused, disorganized and mostly unaware of the cost they pay as individuals for those same programs.

Which brings us to today’s hearing in the House. Who do you think Congress will be hearing from as it begins to rewrite the farm bill? Of the 17 witnesses, not a single one will represent taxpayers, consumers, or non-farm businesses that use those commodities to make their final products. Every witness represents a sector of farm producers. No wonder Congress routinely ignores the interest of the vast majority of its constituents when it writes farm legislation.

Here is the witness list:

Bob Stallman - president, American Farm Bureau Federation

Tom Buis - president, National Farmers Union

Allen B. Helms Jr. - chairman, National Cotton Council, Clarkedale, Ark.

Paul T. Combs - chairman, USA Rice Producers’ Group, Kennett, Mo.

Dale Schuler - president, National Association of Wheat Growers, Carter, Mont.

Gerald Tumbleson - president, National Corn Growers Association, Sherburn, Minn.

John R. Hoffman - first vice president, American Soybean Association, Waterloo, Iowa, also representing National Sunflower Association and U.S. Canola Association

Greg Shelo - president, National Grain Sorghum Producers Association, Minneola, Kan.

Jim Wysocki - president, National Potato Council, Bandcroft, Wis., representing Specialty Crop Farm Bill Alliance and National Potato Council

Jack Roney - director of economics and policy analysis, American Sugar Alliance

Mark Kaiser - board member, Alabama Peanut Producers Association, Seminole, Ala., representing Alabama Peanut Producers Association, Florida Peanut Producers Association, Georgia Peanut Commission and Mississippi Peanut Growers Association

Richard Groven - vice president, National Barley Growers Association, Northwood, N.D.

Jim Evans - chairman, USA Dry Pea and Lentil Council Inc., Genesee, Idaho

Mike John - president, National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, Huntsville, Mo.

Joy Philippi - president, National Pork Producers Council, Bruning, Neb.

Ron Truex - president and general manager, Creighton Brothers, Atwood, Ind., representing United Egg Producers

Paul R. Frischknecht - president, American Sheep Industry, Manti, Utah.