The question posed above is trickier to answer than it might appear – particularly when coupled with the notion that the occupational makeup of members of the U.S. Congress today has transitioned almost completely away from agriculture.
Intuitively, one would assume that the proportion of members of the House and Senate with agricultural expertise or direct agricultural experience has declined precipitously since the very first U.S. Congress (1789-1791). After all, despite a thriving trade in fur, whaling, and fishing in New England, and exposure to the early throes of the Industrial Revolution, the American economy of the late 18th century was largely agrarian.
But a look at the occupational composition of the first Congress reveals that of its 91 members, only 12 were planters/farmers. That’s about 13 percent. By contrast, the Congressional Research Service lists 29 individuals as presently being or having been employed as farmers, ranchers, or cattle farm owners (four in the Senate, 25 in the House) among the 540 members of the 114th Congress (2015-2016). This amounts to a little more than 5 percent.
That drop, from 13 percent to 5 percent over 226 years, isn’t nearly as large as might be expected. The truth is, agriculture has never enjoyed the direct representation in Congress that occupations including public service/politics, business, law, education, and the military have.
Nevertheless, agricultural interests have enjoyed significant support from the House and Senate historically. It’s the nature of the support that has changed, reflecting the decrease in American agriculture’s share of GDP (gross domestic product) and its proportion of the labor force; consolidation in the industry; changes in proportional representation (apportionment) in Congress; and changes to legislative districts and to the committee system.
Debate about the clout of the modern farm lobby and the committees that have jurisdiction over agriculture policy is plentiful. But as Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, one of only two active farmers in the Senate currently, affirms, there’s little doubt that the more remote agriculture becomes from the nation’s legislative branch, the harder it is to represent.
“Fewer legislators coming to Congress with firsthand knowledge of farming makes it more challenging to serve as a voice for rural America and those who choose to make their livelihoods in small towns and farming communities,” he said.
So where does representation for agriculture in Congress stand today and how has it changed? To understand why the nature of support is different today than it was two centuries ago, we must account for the changes detailed above.
Agriculture & the National Economy
When colonial America became the United States, agriculture was the primary livelihood for 90 percent of the population. Immigration, industrialization, and the opening of new lands to cultivation through the first half of the 19th century greatly increased the number of U.S. farms even as looming gains to productivity and the growth of other industries began to decrease agriculture’s share in the national labor force.
According to 2010 U.S. Census Bureau data, the number of American farms grew from 1.4 million in 1850 to 4 million in 1880, reaching 6.4 million by 1910. Thereafter, the total number of American farms began to decline, dropping to 5.6 million in 1950 and 2.2 million in 2008. The most recent Census of Agriculture from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) lists the number of farms at 2.1 million for 2012.
Important though the total number of farms is, two metrics – agriculture’s share of the nation’s GDP and the number of people working in agriculture as a percentage of the total labor force – are even better indicators of the industry’s changing role in the U.S. economy. Looking back nearly 150 years, Philip Pardey, a professor at the University of Minnesota, illustrated the change in both measures in his 2006 book Agricultural R&D in the Developing World: Too Little, Too Late?
In 1869, agriculture accounted for 37.5 percent of GDP while the U.S. farm population constituted 46.3 percent (18 million) of the total U.S. population of 38.9 million. By 1916, 32.5 million people were working in agriculture. But due to the overall increase in the American population (to 102 million) and the growth of competing industries, agriculture’s share of the American labor force fell to 31.9 percent of total population.
In 2006, agriculture’s share of GDP was just 0.8 percent. Today, agriculture accounts for just over 1 percent of total GDP, with direct on-farm employment amounting to 2.6 million Americans, according to the USDA.
In summary, far fewer Americans are working in agriculture than in the historic past. Gains to productivity stimulated by technology, agricultural science, efficient business practices, and industry consolidation have resulted in greatly diminished numbers of farms and farm employees even as American agricultural output is high. These factors, along with other external forces, have transformed the labor force over two centuries, sending Americans from the fields to city streets.
That, in turn, contributed to changes in the nation’s political landscape, the form of public representation in Congress, and support for agricultural interests.
“Certainly, the makeup of Congress is different than it was 100 years ago,” Grassley said. “But that also reflects the shift in U.S. demographics as the population migrates toward metropolitan hubs. This rural-urban divide is reflected in the representatives elected to serve in Congress, especially in the U.S. House of Representatives.”
Apportionment, Direct Election, and the House-Senate Contrast
From its inception, the Constitution specified a means for the “apportioning” representation in the bicameral legislature we know as “Congress.” Membership in the House was to be determined by state population while representation in the Senate was established at two members per state.
The Constitutional Convention determined that a census of the population conducted every 10 years would enable the House to adjust the distribution of its membership on a regular basis. Taxation also figured in representation, with states contributing to the national government based on local taxes or flat poll taxes on each citizen in the period before federal income taxes. Constitutional framers debated the relationship between representation and taxation with a number of delegates arguing that geographic size or useable farmland were better measures of state wealth than mere population.
In the end, proportional contributions were based on population, mirroring the process of apportioning the number of state representatives in the House by population size. Over time, this has had direct implications for the interests of agriculture in the House.
As the Industrial Revolution took hold and the national economy transformed itself from a model based on agriculture and natural resources to a manufacturing-based format in the 20th century and the service-based economy of the 21st century, population concentration shifted away from rural areas to cities and suburbs. Nationally, states with greater population gained more representation.
The obvious result is that members of Congress gradually transitioned away from representing the farming constituency they once had to concerning themselves chiefly with the interests of the urban and suburban electorate.
Modern legislative districting has further diluted direct agricultural representation as sparsely populated rural districts have increasingly been re-drawn to include areas with heavy urban populations. Not surprisingly, members representing these districts in Congress spend far more energy on the interests of their numerous urban constituents.
Another change in national governance and representation that affected agriculture was the 17th Amendment – also known as “direct election.” Enacted in 1913, the amendment was the outcome of a decades-long effort to change the election of members to the House and Senate from its original form wherein state legislatures were responsible for nominating (usually by party) and electing representatives.
Inconsistency in the processes employed by state legislatures to elect representatives along with widespread corruption and deadlocks (which left some seats unoccupied) provided the impetus for reform. By the first decade of the 20th century, the national desire for the election of members to Congress by popular vote (direct election) had gathered critical mass.
Elected by the people of the states rather than state legislatures, congressmen and senators were compelled to represent broader interests. Accordingly, their loyalty to party and the narrow priorities of the legislature became less acute. As rural interests moved out of the spotlight, directly elected members of the House and Senate become more independent, focusing their attention on a wider range of issues. Again, this diluted the power of agriculture in Congress.
Additional nuances include a contrast in the manner in which members of the House and Senate consider issues before them. As outlined, the effects of apportionment in the House dictated by shifts in population led most state representatives to focus more specifically on urban-suburban interests in their respective districts. By contrast, the two senators representing each state are required to represent the whole of their geography. This is the “rural-urban divide” to which Grassley refers.
Where Are Today’s Agricultural Experts? In Committee!
“Of the 100 U.S. senators currently serving in the 114th Congress, [Democratic] Sen. Jon Tester, of Montana, and I are the only two active farmers,” Grassley said.
The fact that just 2 percent of the Senate’s current membership has any direct agricultural experience is attention-getting. Slightly more surprising is that only Grassley serves in the Senate’s primary vehicle for addressing and supporting the interests of agriculture: the Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry.
Grassley is also chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee and serves on four more committees while Tester serves on the Veterans Affairs Committee; Appropriations Committee; Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs Committee; Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee; and the Indian Affairs Committee. Their varied roles are typical of the practice in Congress wherein expertise in areas including agriculture resides primarily in the committees and subcommittees that populate the House and Senate – not specifically among individual members.
Established in 1820 and 1825, respectively, the House Committee on Agriculture and the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition & Forestry have long been the centers for agricultural knowledge in Congress. Charged with the reporting of agricultural legislation to each of their respective legislatures and holding jurisdiction over matters including commodity price and income supports, trade, research, food safety, nutrition, and conservation, the agriculture committees (and their subcommittees) conduct hearings, some public and some in executive session, to consider various legislative proposals.
These hearings are held before representatives of farm organizations, consumer groups, and ordinary citizens. Committee members and other members of the House and Senate also receive input from subject-matter experts on their staffs and are lobbied by interests including the American Farm Bureau.
The committees also conduct oversight and confirmation hearings. The House and Senate agriculture committees were instrumental in the favorable reports that led to the establishment of the U.S. Department of Agriculture on May 15, 1862. In 1889, Congress elevated the department to Cabinet level.
“Much of the agricultural expertise is concentrated on the House and Senate agriculture committees,” Grassley said. “Other members have farming backgrounds, including Sen. Joni Ernst [R-Iowa], who grew up on a hog farm in southwest Iowa. The committee system allows the 535 members of Congress to develop a more thorough, specialized understanding of public policy by creating opportunities to dive into the details of their committee’s legislative and oversight authority.”
The senior senator from Iowa who grew up and worked on a farm in New Hartford, still operated by his sons today, adds that members of Congress learn about agriculture by making a study of it.
“Although I bring real life experience to the agriculture policymaking tables in Washington, D.C., and some farm dirt underneath my fingernails, other members learn about federal farm policy by studying policy and hearing and learning from the experiences of others in various agriculture specialties,” said Grassley.
“Members of the agriculture committees cultivate a deeper understanding of the issues facing American agriculture and Rural America, including soil and water ecosystems, risk management, income security, financial markets, food safety, transportation and Internet infrastructure, and regulatory regimes.”
In answer to the question “Who are today’s agricultural experts in Congress?” we can safely conclude that they’re to be found on the committees that address this unique industry. And, despite the apparent contradiction of a very low number of members of the 114th Congress having direct agricultural experience at a time when the output and impact of American agriculture globally (the USDA FY 2016 forecast for agriculture exports stands at $131.5 billion) is high, agricultural representation is still significant.
As Grassley acknowledged, given the interconnected nature of agriculture with global trade, nutrition, and foreign policy, perhaps it’s best that today’s agricultural experts have varied backgrounds.
“As geopolitical instability causes even more uncertainty in the world, it’s more important than ever to advance policies that help farmers and ranchers maintain U.S. food security and feed a growing world population in the 21st century. That includes trimming the heavy-handed tax and regulatory excesses that make it harder for farmers to maintain productivity and prosperity, get their farm goods to market, and pass on the family farm to the next generation.
“For those of us with a passion for American agriculture, it is vital to continue to educate ourselves, other members of Congress, and the taxpaying public about the issues confronting American agriculture. From farm to fork, Americans from all walks of life have a vested interest in maintaining an affordable, abundant, and safe food supply.”
Caption for top photo: Congressional representation of agricultural interests has evolved in response to changes in American demographics and the economy. Credit: Photo by Martin Falbisoner
This article was originally published in the 2016 edition of U.S. Agriculture Outlook.