Mike Rogers’ one-half percent

As negotiations in Congress over the so-called “farm bill” continue, Rep. Mike Rogers, the Republican representing Alabama’s Third District, is seen as a key vote on the small committee deciding the final contents of the nearly $1 trillion legislation. One major issue on which the members are deadlocked is dairy subsidies, although House Agriculture Committee Chairman Frank Lucas, R-Okla., has said he has “the feeling that Rogers wants to be reflective of his dairymen.”

But what of the vast majority of Rogers’ constituents who are not dairymen?

The most recent U.S. Census Bureau data shows that Alabama’s Third District has 3,050 people employed in the broad category where dairy farmers would be counted: agriculture, forestry, mining, and fishing and hunting. That sounds like a lot until you consider that for every constituent who works in the sector, there are another 228 that aren’t involved in agriculture or anything like it. In other words, less than one half of one percent of Rep. Rogers’ constituents could even possibly have a direct stake in how farm subsidies are structured.

Farming represents a small share of the U.S. economy as a whole, so it’s no great shock to see that reflected in the district’s economy as well. But the Third District isn’t particularly agriculture-heavy by any metric. Among Alabama’s seven Congressional districts, it ranks dead last. According to a database compiled by the Environmental Working Group, the district ranks just 156th in the country in terms of farm payments received between 1995 and 2012.

If Rogers moves to “reflect” his farmers, as Rep. Lucas suggested, he risks turning a blind eye to the 99.5 percent of his constituents who work in other fields. Though 3,000 people in the district might have an interest in a consistent flow of farm payouts, the other 693,000 – constituting a population about as large as the cities of Birmingham, Montgomery, Mobile and Hoover combined – have just as strong an interest in avoiding the costs and distortions associated with lavish handouts to agricultural interests.

The dairy provision is a good example of antiquated policy that has no place in the modern world. Congress is considering what House Speaker John Boehner has rightly derided as a “Soviet-style” program to restrict overall supply of dairy products. Some dairy producers like the program because it promotes higher prices for their products, but the rest of America has to spend more on milk and cheese at the grocery store. This policy is a perfect example of how concentrated benefits and widely dispersed costs make it hard for ordinary Americans to fight special-interest carve-outs.

Though it is never easy to phase out subsidies, it will never be any easier to scale back farm handouts than it is today. The health of the American farm, even after accounting for challenges like the recent drought, is stronger than ever before. Farm incomes and commodity prices, even after recent dips, are at or near record levels, and farm failure rates are quite low. At the same time, the country faces enormous fiscal challenges that will require bipartisan effort to address. Farm policy is one of the few areas where watchdog groups from the right and the left are in agreement: our subsidy scheme is too expensive, causes too many market distortions and encourages environmental destruction.

Agriculture is hugely important to America’s economic and material security, but it enjoys hugely disproportionate taxpayer support that weakens our fiscal house and harms ordinary Americans’ budgets. To Rep. Rogers’ credit, he has stated an openness to reforms that will “make these programs more sustainable” and has promised to “be [a] responsible [steward] of taxpayer money.” In pursuit of those worthy goals, Rogers should keep in mind that 99.5 percent of his constituents have an interest in serious reductions to subsidies, not more of the same failed farm policy.

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