Politics

Haley Barbour wants the government to stay out of the economy … but not entirely

Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour generally opposes government involvement in the economy, but like other potential Republican presidential candidates, he’s willing to make an exception when it comes to farm subsidies.

The federal government doled out about $20 billion to farmers last year, including some with net worth in the millions. Barbour made a trip to Iowa this week where he said he could support some kind of cut in those subsidies, but in an exclusive interview with The Daily Caller, the seven-year governor said he’s in favor of keeping the Depression-era welfare programs going.

“Some of them are very important,” Barbour told TheDC when asked if he supported taxpayer subsidies for farmers. “What we want to have in the United States is abundant food at a responsibly low price. To do that, we have to have an appropriately large supply of agricultural products. When sales volumes are good, prices are reasonable, there shouldn’t be any farm subsidies. But for natural reasons, nature, or what other countries are doing in terms of how they’re handling their markets, sometimes it is appropriate to have farm subsidies.”

Dating back to President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal,  farm subsidies guarantee farmers a bottom line price on their goods — a taxpayer-funded luxury many other industries lack.

The idea that the government should step into a marketplace to ensure prices are “reasonable” is anathema to the orthodox conservative view that markets work best left free from government interference. Republicans often tout a free, or lightly regulated market as the best method to distribute goods and services, but for Barbour, that principle does not apply to agriculture, which he says needs the government interference to function properly.

“What you want is to have policies that lead to ample supply and prices that yield good prices for the person at the grocery store but profits for the farmers,” Barbour said.

Barbour is not alone in straying from free market philosophy when discussing agribusiness. The Republican House budget bill passed last week that cut about $62 billion from current spending levels did not lay a finger on farm spending. Other candidates hinting at runs for the White House, including former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, also support the flow of money to the nation’s farmers.

Many Republicans not only support the subsidies, they also benefit from them.

Perhaps most famously, Congressional Tea Party Caucus founder Rep. Michele Bachmann’s family farm received more than $250,000 in government subsidies over 11 years.

Barbour, however, has gone further than others toward support for cutting farm spending, saying in Iowa this week that the program “can’t be off limits” from reductions.

The reasons Republicans have trouble prying themselves away from government welfare programs for farming are varied. For starters, farming interests have a major footprint in the world of Washington lobbying. The American Farm Bureau has spent more than $60 million on lobbyists since 2000, and the farming interest groups donate mightily to both parties in each election cycle. Many of the most conservative members of the Republican House and Senate represent agriculture states, and bring in millions of federal dollars for their state in subsidies.

The state of Iowa, which plays a starring role in the presidential primary election each cycle because of its early primary schedule and relies heavily on federal subsidies, also makes it difficult for candidates like Barbour to come out against them.

But the support for the programs doesn’t stop candidates like Barbour from railing against government involvement in the economy.

“Every American knows that the last two years the government’s growth should have been on economic growth and job creation. It hasn’t been. The Obama stimulus bill stimulated more government, not more jobs in the private sector,” Barbour told TheDC. “We gotta understand, a bigger government means a smaller economy.”

Barbour added that he’s “thinking” of running for president and will make his decision sometime in April.

As for whether he could he beat President Obama, Barbour said he’ll stay out of the race if he thinks he can’t.

“I wouldn’t run if I didn’t think so,” he said. “America needs a new president. If I think somebody’s gotta appreciably better chance of winning than I, then I’ll be for that somebody. If he’s a conservative Republican.”

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