Failure of the Senate to pass a farm bill [in December] reveals a major crack in the farm bloc that was able to preserve a lifeline for rural America. That bloc had severely weakened more than a decade ago in the House, where there has been a major shift in representation away from the Corn Belt and to the West.
The Senate is where the farm subsidy program was held together -- by Bob Dole of Kansas in 1986, then by Pat Leahy of Vermont, and now by Tom Harkin of Iowa. That's because rural states hold inordinate sway in the Senate, where each state gets two votes.
Before, senators would argue until the 11th hour and then acquiesce to a compromise. That's what Democrats did with the Freedom to Farm Bill despite serious reservations that proved true after passage.
This year, the Republicans smarting from loss of majority control, are playing politics with farmers' futures.
They're aiming at Harkin, Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle and Sen. Tim Johnson, the junior Democrat from South Dakota. Knock off Harkin or Johnson for failure to deliver, and the GOP controls the Senate again.
We are especially disappointed in Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, for conspiring in the bid to kill the farm bill created by Harkin's Agriculture Committee. He and Sen. Richard Lugar, R-Ind., deposed Agriculture Committee chairman, are bitter for losing their perches of power. They are doing all they can to advance the Senate candidacy of Greg Ganske, [the Iowa congressman] who is challenging Harkin. They are able to foil the farm bill to make Harkin look bad despite the fact that the GOP only has 43 votes in opposition, thanks to the Senate's filibuster rules.
Daschle is retaliating by holding back on an economic stimulus package badly wanted by the Bush administration. Senate Republicans would do well not to test Daschle's resolve as a master strategist -- remember Jim Jeffords, the defector from Vermont. Another backfire for the Republicans may be in store. They should come back after Christmas and give their assent to a farm bill favored by a majority of the Senate. Differences then could be reconciled with the Republican-controlled House in conference committee. A reasonable farm bill will have been written.
If Grassley, Lugar and Company persist, we can be assured that selfish interests will have dismantled the farm bloc. That has to be unsettling in a state like Iowa that depends on the government for its basic income. Write or call Grassley and tell him to lay off the obstructionist politics. Farmers have enough to worry about.
Art Cullen is editor of The Storm Lake (Iowa) Times, where this originally appeared.