An uncivil war: Mapping the defeat of subsidy reform

These days, votes in the Senate are usually either along party lines (51-49), or lopsided like 98-2 or 100-0. However, the vote on the Dorgan-Grassley amendment, which would have set a $250,000 limit for farm subsidy payments to any one farm, was unusual. The No votes were cast by 31 Republicans, 11 Democrats and Sen. Lieberman (an independent to the right of the Democrats); the Yes votes by 17 Republicans, 38 Democrats and Sen. Sanders (an independent to the left of the Democrats). (Roll call vote here.)

I was curious to see how the results looked on a map, so I did some winnowing of the results and created a map that shows the Yes and No votes regardless of party. States colored green had two Yes votes on the reform amendment, blue-green states had one Yes vote, and brown states had two No votes. Although Sen. McCain did not vote, I considered his non-vote a No because a certain number of Yes votes were needed to stop the filibuster.

Map of votes on Grassley-Dorgan

Southern senators formed a nearly monolithic block against the amendment, with the exception of Florida (Nelson) and Virginia (Warner and Webb). This provided 22 of the 41 votes needed to sustain the filibuster. The remainder of the filibuster squad came from the far west, far north, and center of the country.

What is it about the South that created a bipartisan voting block against reform?

Four forces: cotton, peanuts, rice — and subsidies. The bulk of these crops are grown in the states represented by senators who voted No on the reform amendment. They had much more to lose financially from payment limits than even corn- and soy-growing states in the Midwest.

According to the USDA’s Rice Backgrounder (see table derived below), cotton, peanuts and rice receive more dollars from the government per acre than the other major commodity crops. The farms that grow cotton, rice and peanuts are also far larger on average than farms that grow the other crops, so the combined effect of high subsidies and large farms is higher overall payments, something that the Dorgan-Grassley amendment threatened. To see how much farm aid each state receives, visit the Environmental Working Group’s subsidy database.

Crop Average farm size (acres) Govt. subsidies per acre
Average subsidy per farm
Peanuts 606 $178 $107,868
Rice 400 $167 $66,800
Cotton 500 $108 $54,000
Corn 200 $63 $12,600
Wheat 275 $35 $9,625
Soybeans 225 $23


Sources: Farm size (except peanuts) and government payments (assumption of national average direct payments and maximum countercyclical payments) are from the USDA Rice Backgrounder (PDF). Peanut farm size is from the USDA Peanut Backgrounder.

The Center for Rural Affairs has some history of individual senators’ votes on Dorgan-Grassley, as well as some biting commentary about those who voted Yes on reform measures that were sure to fail while voting No when their votes could have led to passage.

Map created using the Map Maker Utility at the Texas Agricultural Extension Service.


One Responseto “An uncivil war: Mapping the defeat of subsidy reform”

  1. Becks says:

    Marc – thanks for putting this together. Though none of this is surprising, it’s striking how consistent the trend is. It doesn’t bode well for future farm and food policy, since those powers are not likely to go away anytime soon.