An old debate over the federal government’s role in the farm economy — a topic that produces odd alliances in Washington but that most politicians prefer to avoid — is flaring anew in the race between Minnesota U.S. Sen. Tina Smith and her challenger, former U.S. Rep. Jason Lewis.
Smith’s campaign unearthed old TV footage of Lewis questioning government crop subsidies and declaring, “Government shouldn’t have anything to do with farming.”
“We have glamorized a certain industry, as valuable as it is,” Lewis, a Republican, said on a TV program in 1998. “And members of Congress are running on ‘not one more farm ever going under,’ which I think is a little bit naive.”
Decades later, and after spending a term in the U.S. House from 2017 to 2019, Lewis now says “everything is different” compared with then.
Smith, a Democrat who was appointed to the Senate in 2017 and won a special election in 2018, is using the video to challenge Lewis with farmers, who tend to vote Republican.
The two candidates are scheduled to meet for a virtual candidate forum on Tuesday as part of FarmFest. The annual farm exposition in Redwood Falls, Minn., has been canceled but is still holding events online.
Debates over farm subsidies are usually confined to think tanks and academics because politicians don’t want to risk upsetting farmers. But Lewis’ past objections to government support for farmers still resonate with an odd alliance of fiscal conservatives and critics of big agriculture.
Farmers received more than one-third of their income from taxpayers last year. Aid programs for agriculture are now proliferating as farm groups clamor for dollars to help them through the pandemic.
The coronavirus relief package proposed in the Senate last week includes another $20 billion for farmers, on top of about $16 billion earlier this year and $23 billion in trade war relief since 2018.
“The subsidies are becoming a very large percentage of annual revenue,” said Joshua Sewell, a lobbyist for Taxpayers for Common Sense, a group in Washington, D.C. “It’s tough to have tough conversations when you’re in the middle of a crisis, but Congress seems to be in an arms race with itself of seeing which chamber and which party can provide the most money to agriculture.”
Lewis said he has visited eight farms this year, tried to include Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) reform in the 2018 Farm Bill before the provision was removed and he voted against the bill, and called for aid to farmers amid the pandemic. “Free and fair trade deals,” equitable tax treatment and “significant regulatory reform” are what farmers need now, he said.
“I continue to believe the best thing we can do for agriculture right now is to get markets open and farmers back to work by lifting the lockdowns where we can and as fast as we can,” Lewis said. “The goal of good policy should always be functioning markets so subsidies aren’t as necessary as incomes rise.”
Subsidies cut jagged line
The politics of farm subsidies — which in normal times consist largely of the ethanol mandate and taxpayer-paid crop insurance premiums — don’t break cleanly on party lines.
While fiscal conservatives are generally skeptical, Republicans and Democrats both champion them.
And President Donald Trump, who enjoyed broad support among farmers in his election, has authorized billions of dollars in direct payments to farmers to offset the effects first of the trade war with China, then of the coronavirus.
“Farm subsidies really are a bipartisan issue,” said Anne Schechinger, an economic analyst for the Environmental Working Group, which tracks subsidies to farms among other things. “There are people on both sides of the aisle who are for them and against them.”
Organizations like Taxpayers for Common Sense and Environmental Working Group, which have different aims, have worked together in the past to try to curb farm subsidies. They agree that too often the farmers who most benefit from subsidies are the largest ones.
“Even these new coronavirus food assistance subsidies are going to the biggest farms,” Schechinger said. “The majority of the money is going to large commodity farmers.”
But voting against a farm bill or criticizing subsidies — even in the distant past — can be dangerous for a politician in farm country.
Three-term Kansas Republican Rep. Tim Huelskamp voted against the 2014 Farm Bill and lost his 2017 primary to a candidate who aligned himself with farm groups and criticized Huelskamp for a 1995 doctoral dissertation that questioned farm subsidies.
Smith is on the Senate Agriculture Committee and touts her work on the 2018 Farm Bill as strengthening the dairy safety-net program.
Lewis blasted Smith and other Senate Democrats for opposing “modest food stamp reform” in the Farm Bill, for not paying enough attention to farmers in general, for delaying passage of the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement that replaced NAFTA and for being “woefully silent” when others called for coronavirus relief to farmers in April.
Smith’s campaign said the Farm Bill was a “strong, bipartisan” piece of legislation that she “helped author and champion,” and that Lewis was the only Minnesotan in Congress to vote against it.
“Jason Lewis has made it clear he does not have the backs of Minnesota farmers and that if it were up to him, he would let farms fail — even in tough times,” Smith’s campaign said in a statement.
‘Face 2 Face’
For four years in the late 1990s and early 2000s, Lewis co-hosted the TV show “Face 2 Face” with Vance Opperman, the former president of West Publishing and a major Democratic donor. The show aired on public television in the Twin Cities and 14 other stations in Minnesota, North Dakota and Canada.
Opperman said in an interview that Lewis was more libertarian on the show than he was on his talk radio show that aired around the same time and was later syndicated nationally. They often argued about farming.
“He was a very outspoken libertarian and tended to be against government payments of any kind,” Opperman said.
In one clip from 1999, Opperman was discussing price controls in agriculture with an economist, and Lewis broke in.
“It’s amazing that we hold these commodities up as though they’re gold or God,” Lewis said. “Do you worry that the price of automobiles is too low?”
In another clip, Opperman and Lewis sparred over Minnesota Attorney General Hubert Humphrey III’s court battle against the federal milk marketing order. Lewis argued it was “parochial politics” and would put dairy farmers out of business in other parts of the country even as Opperman argued it protected Minnesota farmers from “discrimination.”
That’s when Lewis said, “Well, the government shouldn’t have anything to do with farming.”
Staff writer Patrick Condon contributed to this report.