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Voters, Not Lobbyists, Deserve Blame for Our Crappy Farm Policies

A new working paper by two Duke economic policy researchers takes a close look at what influences lawmakers’ farm policy votes.
Farming near Klingerstown, Pennsylvania. (PHOTO: PUBLIC DOMAIN)

Farming near Klingerstown, Pennsylvania. (PHOTO: PUBLIC DOMAIN)

Nobody likes America's agricultural policy. Not conservatives, not liberals, and not policy experts, who frequently use terms like "astonishingly irrational" to describe our system of federal subsidies for farming. So why is everyone so angry and shocked that last week’s laden farm bill—comprised of addendums to the same legislative package that Congress has been tagging since 1938—failed in the House of Representatives? Some reports describe a Farm Lobby Goliath smited by a tiny contingent of conservative House GOPers who are hellbent on shrinking the size of government no matter the objections of their fellow Republicans from farm country. But according to a new working paper by Duke economic policy researchers Marc Bellemare and Nick Carnes, it might not have been the all-powerful farm lobby that the House GOP subverted so much as a small contingent of American voters.

Media and food activists like Bill McKibben have been known to blame tendentious lobbying efforts for a heady farm bill.

To measure what influences lawmakers’ farm policy votes, Carnes and Bellemare tracked down sets of data that they thought could indicate important motivators, such as a legislator’s personal policy preferences (the researchers looked up which officials had once managed, or owned, a farm), the number of voters in a district that would benefit from the policy, and the size of the campaign contributions that legislators had received from agriculture industry groups. The researchers write that, of course, the longer a legislator had been a farmer, the more farmers a legislator represented, and the more money a legislator received from farm groups, the more he or she supported legislation trumpeted by organizations such as the American Farm Bureau Federation.

But Bellemare and Carnes went a step further—they looked at the relative importance of each factor to figure out which one held the most sway over legislators. They found that the relationship between the three factors—a lawmaker’s background, the electorate, and industry group—is where things get interesting. For every control case, the number of farm worker constituents within a congressperson’s electorate outweighed the influence of interest group spending and lawmaker background. To be sure, the amount of money a legislator received from political action groups, and the years he or she spent corralling pigs and the like, did correlate with more support for bills that protected agriculture interests. But the number of farmers in a representative’s district was tied the closest to a representative’s farm policy votes.

Media and food activists like Bill McKibben have been known to blame tendentious lobbying efforts for a heady farm bill. But it turns out voters in farm states or districts could be the most important drivers of legislators’ decision-making.

Of course, correlation is not causation, and this is only a working paper. (Bellemare said, in email, that he and Carnes are submitting their work for peer review in the fall.) But it could turn out that voters still have more influence over their elected officials than lobbyists. Score one for democracy! Of course, there is the pattern across several areas of policy (e.g. firearm policy) whereby voters in rural areas seem to hold disproportionate influence in the policy-making process—a decidedly undemocratic pattern.