Ben Nelson Goes Cow (Fees) Tipping

Federal grazing fees are not a hot issue. But the Nebraska senator's new bill to bring them up to market rates is an astute political move.

Reuters

When outgoing Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.) announced last month that he was pushing to reduce America's national deficit by reducing "welfare ranching" in America's heartland, so quiet was the political response in Washington that you could practically hear the crickets chirping along the Potomac. Undaunted, Sen. Nelson last Wednesday went one step further, announcing that he has introduced an eminently level-headed "Fair Grazing Fee" bill, designed to require the various agencies of the executive branch to charge market-level grazing fees for private ranchers who are running livestock on public land.

More crickets in Washington. But not on the ranches and farms of the nation's vast ranch lands. And certainly not in Nebraska. There, Sen. Nelson's new initiative is a very big deal for many different reasons. After all, it's not every day when an elected official, in the selfless pursuit of a common good, bucks up against the power of entrenched special interests and ... wait, wait, what's that? Sen. Nelson pitched his plan not just out of pure deficit-minded selflessness but because Republican nominee Deb Fischer, running this fall for the seat he is vacating, is herself a current beneficiary of "welfare ranching?"

Here's how the Omaha World-Herald Leader put it last month: "The family of Republican Senate nominee Deb Fischer leases 11,724 acres of federal land in north-central Nebraska for about $4,700 for seven months -- by some estimates about $110,000 less than the market rate for leasing private land in Cherry County." Combine such a sweetheart deal with a GOP candidate whose campaign so far has focused upon deficit reduction and wasteful Washington spending and, presto! The Democrats have themselves a campaign theme with some measure of traction.

Sen. Nelson puts it another way. It's not a story about Washington picking on the ranching industry, you see; it's about inequality within that industry itself. Sen. Nelson says he isn't just sticking up for the hundreds of millions of Americans who would like to see their public land leased at market rates. He says he is also sticking up for the vast majority of ranchers who for one reason or another do not receive the benefit of federally subsidized ranching fees. Last week, the senator explained it this way to local journalists:

I have offered an Amendment to help pay for the Jobs Bill, an Amendment that will bring fairness to America's ranchers and all taxpayers. My Amendment will require the US Forest Service and the Federal Bureau of Land Management to charge market value to those who graze livestock on public lands. As you probably know, an elite group of ranchers, I call them the 'two-percenters,' they currently receive about $140 million a year in federal subsidies to graze livestock on publicly-owned land. In these hard economic times, taxpayers shouldn't be padding the pocketbooks of the elite two-percent who get a special deal that 98% of ranchers don't.

And here's more from his website:

... The State of Nebraska charges over $20 dollars a head of calf to graze on state land. Why should the federal government charge $1.35?... Let's go through some numbers. All the grazing fees on federal lands add up to about $21 million dollars. But it costs the federal government $140-some million dollars to take care of those lands. In other words, there is a shortfall of $120 million dollars coming from two percent of ranchers. If I'm one of the 98 percent, I'm going to say 'that's not fair." That's why this is a matter of tax fairness.

In this day and age, who could be against "tax fairness"? Certainly not Bob Kerrey, the former Nebraska senator and governor who is running (against Fischer) for Nelson's soon-to-be-empty seat. "I believe the free market should set the prices for grazing on federal land," Kerrey said last month in a press release after Nelson first announced his pitch. "Giving generous subsidies to a small number of ranchers isn't fair to the vast majority of ranchers who don't have this grazing privilege. Further, it isn't fair to the taxpayers who are subsidizing this form of welfare.

Presented by

Andrew Cohen is a contributing editor at The Atlantic. He is a legal analyst for 60 Minutes and CBS Radio News, a fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice, and Commentary Editor at The Marshall Project

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