All Politics Is Local: Senatorial Power, the Farm Bill, and Catfish

Apr 8, 2015 | Politics


While earmarks have supposedly gone the way of the dodo bird, there are still many ways to bring home the bacon, even against the will of your own party’s leadership. Farm Bill authorizations, typically done every five years, are such an opportunity. The omnibus legislation governs everything from crop subsidies and insurance markets to environmental protections, commodity futures and food stamps. The Agricultural Act of 2014 appropriated $956 billion dollars in spending over the next ten years. This bill was late, with the last Farm Bill expiring in 2012 and its extension politically impossible during the contentious 2012 election. The more conservative Congress, especially the House of Representatives, sought to dramatically overhaul their predecessors’ work and reduce spending but ran into resistance from Democratic lawmakers and outside groups whose revenue streams were on the chopping block.

The Farm Bill is one of the best examples in American politics of the conflict between ideology and pragmatism. Many of the members of Congress represent relatively rural parts of the country; Census data suggests that in the 113th Congress, there are 155 “urban” districts, with the remaining 280 House seats at least partially rural. Furthermore, as research by the Pew Research Center suggests, Republicans now represent 84% of the country’s landmass, including the vast majority of rural America.

This comes at a time when polarization has reinforced the power of party leadership at the expense of Member independence, ensuring a homogenous, cooperative rank and file. With many districts being more competitive in the primary than in the general election due to polarization and redistricting, ideological purity is crucially important. The idea of giving out government handouts through subsidies to American businesses violates the free market. The result is contradictory goals for agriculture legislation. Many Members were elected on promises to cut taxes, reduce spending, and reduce the deficit, and they are forced to choose between campaign promises and fighting for their parochial interests to preserve the jobs and wealth of their constituents, many of whose livelihoods are directly or indirectly impacted by the provisions of the Farm Bill.

Lobbying hasn’t helped this conflict of interest. Every commodity grown has a lobbying arm, which spent $150 million dollars on lobbying in 2013 alone. The environmental lobby is also a powerful force and is accustomed to opposing agribusiness when debating water and pollution policies. While specific numbers are not available on exactly how much was spent, there were 977 clients who hired lobbyists on environmental issues in 2013, many of whom targeted Farm Bill issues. Over 350 companies employed lobbyists on the Farm Bill in 2013 and spent $150 million talking to Senators in the same time period. This massive expenditure, two years of divisive battles, and multiple re-starts is indicative of the paralysis that grips Congress. After all of that, official calculations project only $24 billion dollars in savings (less than three percent of the total cost of the bill).

While there were many such confrontations in the past year’s debates, none were more emblematic than the fight over catfish. The controversy related to the catfish industry is relatively straightforward. Dietary preferences are shifting away from fish, and domestic industries are undercut by foreign competition. It costs more to produce a catfish domestically than it does in nations such as Vietnam, even accounting for shipping costs. The debate centered around whether or not to create and/or extend existing domestic protections of the domestic catfish industry, or allow free trade and let the market dictate winners and losers. (especially noteworthy with the advancement of the TPP)

The catfish provisions of this legislation demonstrate the power that a single member of Congress can have over a large piece of legislation. In the status quo, the USDA inspects imported catfish, mostly from Vietnam, creating a significant barrier to entry in the market that defended the U.S. domestic industry. In the Senate, this provision alone resulted in a clash of wills and wiles between two men with more than six decades of experience.

Senator Thad Cochran of Mississippi reintroduced a provision to maintain the inspection process. Senator John McCain objected and sent a sharp letter to both Cochran and Debbie Stabenow, Members of the Senate Agriculture Committee, to voice his concerns. He claimed that the inspection process was a duplication of effort from FDA efforts, and was merely a regulatory hurdle that increased prices on imported catfish, a protectionist measure meant to keep out low-priced competitors for the domestic catfish industry. McCain said that if we do not repeal the program, “hardworking farmers and ranchers across the United States may find themselves reeling from the effects of a multi-billion dollar trade war.” Vietnam is a large importer of American soybeans, flour, beef and poultry, so the implications of a trade war would reverberate across the country. This disagreement devolved into an ugly argument on the Senate floor that went viral.

“Over 20 American farm groups that oppose the USDA catfish inspection program out of concern for the harmful effects of such actions would have on American agricultural exports.”

McCain vowed to “legislatively terminate it at every opportunity.” His request was echoed by twelve taxpayer advocacy groups and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, who saw the program as a waste of federal funds. From the Chamber’s perspective, “repealing the USDA catfish inspection program is common sense, will save money and is a step in the right direction of fiscal responsibility.” Furthermore, a May 2012 Government Accountability Office (GAO) report found “responsibility for inspecting catfish should not be assigned to USDA.” The coalition against Cochran was unusual both in its composition and the breadth and scope of its members, which include “free-trade advocates, the greater seafood industry, the country of Vietnam, the White House and the fiscal hawks.”

Senator Cochran, however, is a survivor. He has been in the Senate since 1978 and is an institution in Mississippi, rarely drawing a competent challenger. When criticized by a 2014 primary challenger as a relic of a past and earmark-laden, he rose to the challenge. Cochran used his ability to bring home results from Washington, such as the Thad Cochran Warmwater Aquaculture Center at Mississippi State University, as his case to Mississippi voters. He defended his ability to bring home support to Mississippi and survived a vicious run-off in the primary that devolved into controversies about his nursing home confined wife and racism as he sought the support of African Americans to win the primary. His win can be partially attributed to his fight for the catfish industry, a large force in the state.

Ben Pentecost, the President of the Catfish Farmers of America and one of the largest supporters of Cochran’s reelection, said, “We probably lost thousands of jobs here in the Mississippi Delta, which is one of the poorest regions of the country.” Cochran was unapologetic about what he was trying to do, and played the populist, saying that “we’re trying to protect or at least make sure that a U.S. industry that employs a lot of people in an impoverished region of the country gets a fair shake, and to ensure that people are getting food that’s safe.”

In the end, Thad Cochran’s political might triumphed, and catfish will be inspected by the FDA and the USDA, but the bill also includes a “first-of-its-kind “crop insurance” program for catfish farmers.” His victory surprised many. A pundit suggested that Southern catfish farmers were going to be “hooked and filleted” by the new farm bill.” The Catfish Farmers of America and their allies emerged the clear winners, thanks to Thad Cochran, prevailing over the wide-ranging coalition arrayed against them.

This was just a small provision in a thousand-page document that covers everything from food stamps and school lunches to subsidies for ethanol and environmental protection. While national trends point towards nationalized, homogeneous parties under the sway of central leadership, at the core, politics remains about the district and its interests. This supports research by the Congressional Management Foundation that members really do care about their constituents’ concerns. Congress may be more unpopular than going to the dentist or Attila the Hun, but when Members fight for their states like Thad Cochran, it is easy to see why most incumbents get re-elected.

Topics: Congress | Senate