WASHINGTON -- John McCain loves to hate federal farm spending.
It's an easy target for the self-styled reformer and a reliable source of mockery. It also distinguishes the Republican presidential candidate from his Democratic opponent, Barack Obama, who's more traditional when it comes to farm subsidies.
The agricultural-policy differences were apparent in 2006 when McCain sought to remove a $74 million grant program designed to help states promote sales of fruits and vegetables. In Senate debate, he likened the farm promotions to previous federal grants that funded artwork on airplanes.
"Maybe that (money) will be used to paint vegetables on airplanes. Or maybe a pretty flower. Or maybe a nice acorn," McCain suggested. "How about some dried apricots or prunes? That would be sure to increase consumption." McCain's sarcasm was characteristic. So was the legislative result. His amendment failed by a 61-37 vote, with Obama joining a number of McCain's fellow Republicans in defeating it.
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"John McCain is a tightwad," said John Block, a former agriculture secretary under President Reagan and now an adviser to McCain. "Without question, he would tighten down on spending." On the campaign trail, both Obama and McCain present themselves as agents of change. Neither candidate, however, has yet imposed his vision on federal farm policy.
In part, both senators have placed their priorities elsewhere. Neither is a member of the Senate Agriculture Committee, which writes the once-every-five-year farm bill.
McCain didn't vote on the initial Senate farm bill in December. Neither did Obama, and nor did several other senators then running for president. Neither McCain nor Obama offered amendments to the 1,360-page bill on the Senate floor. Instead, both primarily confined themselves to rhetorical positioning.
Citing individual provisions such as aid to West Coast salmon fishermen and funding for California and Michigan asparagus growers, McCain denounced the $296 billion bill as the product of a "congressional feeding frenzy." Farm bills, in general, have fit into McCain's standard campaign narrative of a bloated Congress out of control.
Although McCain missed the final farm bill votes on May 15, he had inserted a written statement into the Congressional Record noting that he "proudly" co-sponsored an earlier amendment to tighten subsidy payments to wealthy farmers. But when that amendment came to the Senate floor in December, McCain also was absent. He was the only senator to miss the vote on the amendment, which failed narrowly.
Obama, too, supported the failed amendment limiting subsidies. And like McCain, he missed the May farm bill votes. In a written statement, though, Obama praised the overall package of subsidies.
"It provides a strong safety net for farmers, and gives them the certainty needed in a sector that provides an important human resource -- food -- amidst the unpredictable dynamics of weather and markets," Obama said.
Obama further showcased his own priorities by devoting half his 800-word statement to discussing the two topics of low-income food assistance and legal relief for black farmers who claim they were discriminated against.
"He does understand there's a need for investment (in agriculture)," said Rep. Dennis Cardoza, a California Democrat who's on the House Agriculture Committee. "He was supportive." McCain and Obama both hold positions directly relevant to farmers beyond the farm bill. McCain, for instance, adamantly supports free trade and argues that proposed trade pacts with Colombia and South Korea will open up new agricultural markets.
Obama, in contrast, has been more skeptical on trade. He voted in 2005 against a free-trade pact with the Dominican Republic and Central America. He calls a proposed South Korean free-trade deal bad for American workers and says he would amend the North American Free Trade Agreement to boost labor protections.
Both do well at harvesting campaign dollars from farm country, but McCain does it better.
McCain, for all his criticisms of the agricultural status quo, has collected for his presidential campaign $2.2 million from agriculture-related interests and individuals, according to records compiled by OpenSecrets.org. This is twice as much as Obama has collected.
"It's a very hard thing to change overnight," Block, the former agriculture secretary, said of farm policy, "but (McCain) is going to use a veto pen. There's no question he wants to be a reformer."