South Dakota’s Third Rail

You are no doubt familiar with the phrase “touching the third rail.” It derives from the idea that there are certain topics which, like the third (electrically-charged) rail of certain transportation systems, cause serious damage or death, politically speaking. The area of public policy to which this is most often applied these days is Social Security.

I propose that South Dakota has its own third rail, which like Social Security is in desperate need of reform. However, that very same reform would imperil the hopes of any politician who seeks to run for governor, federal senator or federal representative. Our third rail? How about direct and indirect agricultural/agribusiness subsidies?

CombineThese subsidies have been around for a long time, but Governor Rounds, Senator Johnson, Senator Thune and Representative Herseth Sandlin have all supported and/or voted for the continuation of government ag subsidies via the regular implementation of the Farm Bill. The most recent bill was passed in 2008.

Governor Mike Rounds, in late 2007, called for Congress to get moving on the bill because:

“Farmers and ranchers face enough uncertainty due to weather, market, and other fluctuations that impact their bottom line. The Senate should not add to these uncertainties by delaying timely consideration of the 2007 Farm Bill.”

After the selection of Tom Vilsack as Secretary of Agriculture, Rounds went on the record in support of the farm bill again:

Praise also came in from South Dakota Gov. Mike Rounds. Rounds said Vilsack understands the need for a good Farm Bill and its implementation as a support network for Midwestern farmers.

Then, of course, there are the many, many times the Governor has backed ethanol. Most recently, he called for increasing the percentage which is added to gasoline:

“Increasing the amount of ethanol blended into gasoline is an important step that will have dramatic, positive effects on advancement of the renewable fuels industry,” South Dakota Gov. Mike Rounds said. “In addition to economic benefits, increased use of ethanol and biofuels will lead to greater energy independence by utilizing homegrown commodities, materials and technologies.”

I could go on and list the times when Johnson, Thune and Herseth Sandlin have all pushed for more subsidies, more money from the federal government for South Dakota farmers, ranchers, ethanol producers, etc. However, their positions are a matter of public record. They continue to be proud that they are bringing home the dollars for South Dakota. A recent example where all three of them were of one accord was this request for a disaster declaration. This is not an anomaly. Agreement within the congressional delegation on the use of taxpayer funds to prop up, assist, subsidize (whatever you want to call it) agribusiness in South Dakota is expected and routine. Agreement on other issues is relatively rare.

When this agreement isn’t routine, it can cause difficulties. Thune used an apparent Daschle failure to support a particular ethanol bill  as a campaign issue in 2004. It may well have helped to tip the scales in Thune’s favor.

I realize as I write this that I need to wrap up for now. Let me say before I go that I am not against the farmer, the rancher or the agribusiness owner. I have worked as a hired hand. I understand the work is hard, the weather is uncertain, the risks are large.

For me, the issue is one of principle. Even for a good cause, it is wrong for the government to provide subsidies, insurance, grants, etc to any subset of the population at the expense of any other subset of the population. Not to mention that the Constitution does not allow for it.

Why should a farmer receive compensation from the government for flooding or drought damage when I receive none for the same, though my garden may well have been damaged as well? But, you say, the farmer is providing a necessary service for the good of the community; the government has an interest in ensuring that we all have food. However, the difference between that farmer and me, in this regard, is simply a matter of scale. My garden is helping to ensure that my family has food.

Do not get me wrong, I am not asking that the government pay me for damage done to my garden; I am stating that since the government is fundamentally unable to make things absolutely equitable for everyone (me with my garden and the farmer with his fields) it has no business deciding who the winners and losers will be.

We have a little thing for that called the market.

The question is, will anyone who is running for Governor, Senator, or Representative in the 2010 elections here in South Dakota be willing to do the right thing and point that out to their current/future constituents? Or, will they continue with matters as they are, hoping that by the time something reaches critical mass, the problem will belong to someone else?

4 thoughts on “South Dakota’s Third Rail

  1. I hope some candidate will make exactly that argument, Michael. That candidate will get pulverized, but we need to have the conversation.

    Check with Thad Wasson, who has announced he’ll challenge SHS. He just might have the courage (or the lack of political good sense?) to raise this issue.

  2. I agree with your take on ag subsidies being SD’s third rail. It also has to do with local politics. Local politics can trupt the party politics when it comes to any state’s governor and congressional delegation. Liberals from other parts of the country get upset with Sen. Johnson when he supports the banking and credit card industries that are in SD. Just like I assume conservatives are not happy when Republicans from big farming states support farm subsidies.

    It’s part of the formula our elected officials have to weigh when they make a decision. Do they follow the philosophy of their party that might upset their constituents? Or do they go agaisnt their party’s wishes and do something that will make their constituents happy? I’d like to think that they make decisions based on what they think is best, but I’m pretty sure those factors color their decisions.

    1. Haggs,

      I would agree that our elected officials are indeed weighing the influence of their parties. My take is that the party didn’t elect them, the people did. They ought to represent the people.

      Nonetheless, they should also be letting the people know otherwise popular policies are not in the people’s long term best interest. Sure, giving money to any group is pretty popular with the members of that group–until they have to pay the piper.

Comments are closed.