On the surface, it seems so simple. For months, newspapers and TV news shows have been beating you up with stories about “millions of dollars in payments to wealthy farmers,” some of them members of Congress.
To get relief, you write a farm bill amendment that clamps a lid on payments to individual farmers and multiple entities. And, for good measure, you eliminate generic commodity certificates — whatever they are — and stop payments to farmers who earned more than $2.5 million over the last five years.
It doesn't matter that the numbers those articles and TV reports were based on might be flawed — the Environmental Working Group (EWG) wouldn't mislead you, would they? — or that you might put thousands of family farmers out of business.
No, the important thing is you have your headline-grabbing legislation that will stop the adverse publicity and help you and your colleagues win re-election this fall.
That might also be an over-simplification, but it's what happened when Sen. Grassley of Iowa, Dorgan of North Dakota, Johnson of South Dakota, and Lugar of Indiana steam-rolled the Grassley amendment through the Senate.
The fact that each is a Midwesterner with corn and soybeans in their backgrounds did not come as a surprise to those who have followed farm policy debates over the years.
Before they joined forces with the corn growers in the Commodity Classic, I covered many of the American Soybean Association's annual meetings. In its resolutions sessions, one Iowa farmer after another would get up and demand that ASA get the government out of farming.
Back then, soybeans were selling for $7 to $8 per bushel and Iowa growers were making good money with their 40 and 50-bushel yields. When prices began falling, those farmers changed their tunes and became adept at working the marketing loan.
Lugar alluded to that during the debate on his farm bill proposal — which was defeated 85 to 11 — when he acknowledged that he was receiving $5.40 per bushel for soybeans when cash beans have been $4.10 a bushel in central Indiana.
After Sen. Blanche Lincoln of Arkansas tore into the Grassley amendment, charging it was an attack on and not an effort to help family farmers, Grassley seemed somewhat taken aback. It was if he had never considered, as Lincoln noted, that many growers on the EWG Web site are struggling to keep their heads above water.
But it was too late. Senators who don't understand the first thing about farming had a vote that would play well in the urban areas of their states, and the amendment passed overwhelmingly.
Besides the impact on farmers who are neither wealthy nor large, analysts say the amendment would be a nightmare to administer. Farmers need new legislation to be implemented as quickly as possible, but it could take USDA months to figure out what the “Ghastly” amendment means.
When Dorgan introduced the amendment, he listed Thad Cochran of Mississippi as a co-sponsor only to have to apologize to Cochran for the error a few minutes later. It says a lot about the amendment's backers that they couldn't even get the sponsors right.