“…keep the grain and export the farmers” (Ronald Reagan, 1985)

Posted by Miryam Ehrlich Williamson

A guest column by Neil E. Harl in today’s Des Moines Register

Agriculture could suffer with McCain as president

NEIL E. HARL is emeritus professor of economics at Iowa State University. Contact: harl@iastate.edu

For those of us who care deeply about the long-term health of the agricultural sector (and the resources that make that sector so productive), it is deeply disturbing to read and hear Sen. John McCain’s comments about the sector and about the 2008 farm bill.

As the senator told a group in Wisconsin recently, “the farm bill, $300 billion, is something America simply cannot afford.” That statement is fully consistent with his opposition to farm bills over the years.

My concern is not so much about his broadside against farm subsidies – I have criticized direct payments when farm prices are up – but the fact that he apparently does not understand that a huge part of the $300 billion goes for food assistance, nutrition, conservation, trade, environmental protection, country-of-origin labeling of food products and meat inspection, to mention some of the programs supported by the legislation. With his consistent opposition to recent farm bills, the senator apparently has accepted at face value the critical comments from some lobbyists and others, apparently without learning just how important the farm bill is to the health and well-being of our citizens.

But the more serious concern is that his widely publicized remarks indicate a deep-seated antagonism toward the agricultural sector itself. Those remarks are an echo of the sorry refrain I heard over and over in 1984 and 1985 during the early stages of the farm debt crisis. When it was obvious to almost everyone in the country, except the administration in Washington, that agriculture faced a huge adjustment in the 1980s, an effort was made to persuade key administration officials that federal involvement was needed. I made 13 trips to Washington in 1984 bearing that message. The uniform response: We don’t believe there is a problem. And if there is, it’s not the business of the federal government to get involved.

The effort culminated with a highly publicized meeting in the Roosevelt Room at the White House with David Stockman, the chief gatekeeper to the Reagan administration on Jan. 11, 1985. That 40-minute meeting erupted in a shouting match between Iowa’s then governor, Terry Branstad, and Stockman and a royal put-down of John Block, then secretary of agriculture, in response to Block’s comment that something needed to be done.

Block was told by an obviously angry Stockman that “this government doesn’t believe in that.” That session was followed, weeks later, by the president’s veto of the badly needed farm-credit bill and preceded by his statement to the Gridiron Dinner that “we should keep the grain and export the farmers.”

McCain’s outbursts are far more ominous than anything coming from the Reagan White House. But that experience illustrates just how effective a few ideologues can be in blocking assistance to a sector in genuine difficulty. I shudder to think what the reception would be, years from now, when the agricultural sector is once again in economic difficulty, which is likely to happen, and someone mounts a bipartisan effort to communicate with a White House that does not believe in farm legislation.

The agricultural sector does not expect favoritism in the new administration but should be able to count on even-handed treatment in the White House and should not have to beat down rhetoric designed to please a particular segment of the political spectrum. Agriculture is not well-served by a president who proclaims at every turn that the many programs in the farm bills, all with strong bipartisan support, are unworthy.

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One Response to ““…keep the grain and export the farmers” (Ronald Reagan, 1985)”

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