I first ran across a working version of a recent paper by Marc Bellemare of the University of Minnesota and Nick Carnes of Duke University entitled "Why Do Members of Congress Support Agricultural Protection" a few months ago while doing some research for my paper on regulation in ag. The article does a good job of explaining how a relatively small constituency obtains such tremendous benefit through the national-level political process. The article is certainly worth a read, so I thought I'd give just a short summary (mostly from the abstract) and give some brief thoughts on it.
The authors examine three possible explanations for congressional support for US ag: lobbying, legislator preferences, and electoral incentives. They use data on votes by legislators for the 2002 and 2008 farm bills to examine the degree to which these possible sources of support for ag explain ag protection legislation in the US.
As the authors note, other studies have examined one or two of these potential sources of support, but never all three. All three explanations certainly seem plausible. As the saying goes, the squeaky wheel gets oiled, so lobbying by producer groups could certainly drive legislator's priorities. Commodity groups certainly have the resources behind them to get in front of a lot of legislators.
On the other hand, legislators who grew up on a farm or who managed a farm before they were elected might believe more strongly in the benefits of favorable ag policies and thus may be more likely to vote in favor of them. Perhaps lobbying is not required to get these particular legislators to vote in support of the farm bill. These former ag producers may even push to get into important positions on ag committees in the House and Senate in order to have more influence on the bills that go to the floor.
Finally, pressure from producers in their state/district may drive legislators to vote in favor of ag protection. In my experience, farmers are far more engaged than the average person in local and state politics. Perhaps they are also highly engaged at the national level.
So what do Bellemare and Carnes find? Does lobbying have as big an impact as we might expect given that it's always such a contentious issue in political discussions? Is ag protection just a matter of people who like agriculture getting elected and protecting an industry they hold dear? Do legislators respond to the influences of their farmer-constituents, making ag protection in the US simply an example of the results we would expect in a representative democracy?
The results indicate that electoral incentives most consistently explain legislative support for ag. Legislators who are concerned about re-election and who have large ag constituencies in their districts/states are heavily incentivized to vote in favor of ag protection. The farm bill debates are always popular topics in the media when they come around, so interested parties are likely to be highly informed as to how their representatives are voting on support for ag.
Legislator preferences and lobbying also play a role, but the authors do not find as much support for these hypothesized influences as they do for electoral incentives. There are two important things to note here. First, the authors find that legislator preferences are substitutes for electoral incentives. Even if a given legislator doesn't have a large electoral incentive to vote in favor of support for ag, their own experience in the ag industry may make them more likely to support favorable ag policies. Second, lobbying likely has an impact on legislator's propensity to support ag. If it didn't, producer groups would find more productive places to put their money. What the authors' findings suggest is that lobbying efforts by producer groups are not just buying votes at the margin.
Overall, this article makes a strong case in favor of the view that ag producers are very good on their own at incentivizing legislators to pass legislation that (ostensibly) benefits them. It seems to me that a key part of this is the ability of the ag press (and the media more broadly) to monitor and report on legislators' actions during the process of passing a farm bill. Whatever specific factors drive legislative support for ag, the passage of each farm bill is proof positive that a small segment of the population can wield tremendous political power.