The politics of division — the practice of turning one group against another purely for political gain — certainly isn't a novel concept. It just seems to have taken on a new ferocity and blatancy in recent times, and it appears as though it's being adopted by people from who we'd expect better.

A most recent example is that of U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Mike Johanns. Anyone who attended one of the secretary's much-hyped “listening sessions” held during the past year should have no doubt about where he stands on farm legislation. In a nutshell, he advocates reforming the current farm bill, making it more WTO-friendly. On that position he has stood firm, despite pleas from farmers to retain and enhance features of the current law. He has staged plenty of sessions, but not much listening has been going on.

Recently, Johanns took the debate to another level, one that would appear to be beneath a cabinet-level official. In remarks made to the Cato Institute, a conservative think-tank, he unabashedly played the “politics of division” card by pitting row-crop farmers against specialty crop farmers.

In hammering home his “reform” message, Johanns said the current farm bill is both inequitable and subject to legal challenges by the World Trade Organization. “In the U.S., five crops account for 21 percent of our cash receipts in agriculture. Those five crops receive 93 percent of our subsidy payments. Meanwhile, our specialty crops, which are now equal in value to the program crops, receive virtually nothing from the subsidy program,” he said.

He went even farther by saying he found it “interesting” that specialty crop farmers are not requesting farm programs, but instead are asking for marketing promotion dollars and support for research to address sanitary and phytosanitary issues. In other words, why can't you row-crop guys be more like the specialty crop growers? It reminds you of your parents admonishing you for not being more like your angelic sister or brother.

Johann's strategy is simple and transparent to even the political novice — build support for your position by creating divisions among agricultural producers, a group that already is painfully small.

He also criticized the current farm bill for the wide disparity in payments among the five program crops. Using an average of the 2002-2005 crop years, Johanns said soybeans received about 6 percent of program payments, rice 8 percent, wheat 10 percent, cotton 23 percent and corn 46 percent. Unless the 2007 farm bill is substantially different from the one passed in 2002, he says the legislation is vulnerable to being torn apart piece by piece through legal challenges from other WTO-member countries.

“Make no mistake about it, Brazil is not alone in threatening to challenge our programs. We lost the Step 2 cotton case in the WTO despite aggressively defending it. Uruguay has expressed concern about our rice program, and the C4 countries in Africa continue to raise concerns about the cotton program,” says Johanns.

After noting the potential legal vulnerability that exists for some U.S. farm programs, the secretary stated that, “Whether or not we achieve the ambition of the Doha Development Agreement, we have a great opportunity in front of us. But decision time is fast approaching. I really believe we have a couple of options. The first would be to allow the future to be driven by WTO litigation that dismantles programs piece by piece. The second option is to grab hold of these issues and craft farm policy in such a way that it leads us to the future with vision and foresight. It comes down to a choice between being the authors of future farm policy, or being in the audience as WTO challenges pull the safety net out from underneath our producers.”

It would appear from the secretary's comments that the No. 1 priority in writing new farm legislation is insuring that it passes muster with WTO. The well-being of U.S. farmers — even national security — are secondary issues.

How about throwing a third option in the mix? Extend the current farm bill, with slight modifications and improvements, at least until other WTO negotiating partners show a willingness to grant increased market access to United States.

But don't expect that option to be considered — not by this secretary or this administration. By playing the politics of division, they're making it clear they won't be budging from the position they've stated all along.