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.


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.

What do Fischer and her fellow Republicans think of Sen. Nelson's bright idea? I'll let the Lincoln Journal Star pick up the story from here:

The Nebraska Democratic Party launched a new TV ad campaign Monday accusing Republican Senate nominee Deb Fischer of accepting millions of dollars in "taxpayer subsidies";at the same time, she calls for reduced federal spending. "Think you know Deb Fischer?" the attack ad asks. "Well, behind her rhetoric is a lot of bull. Tell welfare rancher Deb Fischer to cut wasteful spending, not profit from it."

Democrats clearly have decided Fischer's participation in a federal livestock grazing rights program that benefits her own family ranch may be a chink in her conservative, cost-cutting armor they might be able to exploit. Sen. Ben Nelson and Bob Kerrey, her Democratic Senate opponent, already have questioned Fischer's acceptance of what they describe as federal subsidies that result from charging below-market fees for cattle grazing rights on U.S. Forest Service land.

"Ranchers are required to pay for additional maintenance costs and abide by strict federal regulations in exchange for leasing the land," Fischer campaign spokesman Daniel Keylin said. Republican Sen. Mike Johanns, a former U.S. secretary of agriculture, already has said it was misleading to describe the program as a subsidy, Keylin pointed out. Johanns said the lease requires substantial activity by a rancher in return for limited use of the land. Republican state Chairman Mark Fahleson branded the ads an act of desperation.

An act of desperation, perhaps. But that doesn't make Sen. Nelson's plan bad national policy. Indeed, regardless of its local-political overtones, and regardless of the senator's motives in promoting it, making federal grazing fees at least match the market rate is sound and equitable policy that deserves serious consideration on Capitol Hill. The fact is, for the past 75 years, "welfare ranching" has eroded public resources for the benefit of an industry that gladly accepts the federal dole at the same time it is blasting Washington for its largesse.

Just ask the folks at the Center for Biological Diversity, a group dedicated (among other things) to the conservation of public lands. The Center's Public Land Campaigns Director, Taylor McKinnon, quickly praised the Nelson plan. "The grazing subsidy is America's upside-down public-lands policy," McKinnon told me last Friday. "Each year it costs the public hundreds of millions of dollars while enabling public-lands grazing that erodes soil and destroys wildlife habitat. Reform makes perfect economic and environmental sense. It's long overdue."

Overdue -- and clearly not a priority so far for the Obama Administration, which has stubbornly refused to expend any political capital on this issue. Here's what McKinnon had to say about the executive branch's contemporary approach to the problem of "welfare ranching" and its insidious subsidization:

We've both petitioned and sued the Obama Administration seeking a significantly fairer fee, but they resist change. So after years of their skulking and cowering, it's refreshing to see someone with guts enough to tell the truth and demand a discussion about real reform.

"Real reform" can come from many different places and for many different reasons. Maybe Sen Nelson is, as McKinnon suggests, just being gutsy for pitching his plan now. Maybe he is, as Nebraska's Republicans contend, just being ballsy on his way out. Either way, and whomever wins or loses the Senate race for his seat in Nebraska, fair grazing fees and the end of "welfare ranching" is a good idea whose time, finally, has come. As the senator himself put it, "$1.35 per cow is too darn low." Darn right it is.