The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The U.S. has few farmers. So why does Congress love farm subsidies?

This week, House Republicans passed a rather unusual farm bill. There was no money for food stamps for the poor, a program that typically makes up the bulk of these bills. But the House did manage to pass billions in subsidies for farmers and agribusinesses.

Ideology probably can't explain this vote — at least not entirely. Most outside conservative groups were aghast at the crop insurance and commodity supports, which will cost taxpayers some $195 billion over 10 years. Yet House Republicans actually made the farm aid more generous — by adding 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.

This raises a question: 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.

One theory is that money explains it all. Wealthy agribusinesses are somehow paying off Republicans to vote their way. “Republicans demonstrated that they are just fine with bloated welfare programs as long as those welfare payments go to well-heeled special interests," wrote Michael Tanner of Cato. Over at the Atlantic, Derek Thompson proffered a similar theory, citing research showing that lawmakers are more likely to favor the rich.

Not everyone's convinced by this, though. In a recent working paper (pdf), Duke University economist Marc Bellemare and political scientist Nicholas Carnes came up with a better reason for Congress's ag-subsidy love. Farmers and farm owners have disproportionate political sway in key districts.

The paper itself is quite detailed. Bellemare and Carnes scrutinized a number of different theories for why farm subsidies have such mass appeal in Congress. They gathered data on which politicians were receiving money from various farm PACs. They looked at which lawmakers were former farmers. And they examined the make-up of the lawmakers' districts — how many farm owners and managers were there?

Bellemare tells me that he expected agribusiness lobbying to have the biggest impact on various farm votes before they did the study. But that wasn't the case. Pressure at the polls turned out to be the key factor.

"[T]he one explanation that almost always explains support for agricultural protection," the paper concludes, "is the electoral pressure a legislator faces, i.e., the proportion of her constituents who are farm owners or farm managers." Other things, like lobbying or a politician's farm background, can also matter, but they have a weaker effect.

This was unexpected. The average number of direct agricultural constituents in a House district was only about 1 or 2 percent — there simply aren't many farmers left in the United States. 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.

In an interview, Bellemare stressed that his paper is  a work in progress — it's not yet published — and he's still responding to critics. For instance, it's a bit tricky to analyze votes on the 2002 and 2008 farm bills because they contained both crop subsidies and money for food stamps. So the authors have used a variety of techniques to tease out lawmakers who are casting votes for food stamps and those who favor the actual farm subsidies.

One notable thing they've found recently is 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.

"We can’t say that for certain from our results," Bellemare says. "But it certainly seems like that coalition is a necessary condition of these bills passing."

Of course, the House has now taken the step of splitting the farm bill in two, which could scramble the politics further in years ahead. It's hard to draw too many hard conclusions from yesterday's vote, since it's a bit of a special case — the House leadership was trying different tactics to pass a massive farm bill that had already been written, and temporarily splitting food stamps and farming seemed like one way to go.