The Farm Bill: It’s Showtime!
The farm bill will come up before the House Agriculture Committee next week. The bill has gained the attention of everyone from organic ‘foodies’ to minority ranchers to animal rights activists. In this atmosphere, is compromise possible?
“It’s showtime," announced one farm bill lobbyist and reformer. The House agriculture committee is scheduled to begin its markup of the farm bill July 17 and hopes to take a bill to the floor the week after.
Big Gulp Photo: Michele Cat
Well, make that bills. In what the National Journal described as a “convoluted process," House Agriculture Committee Chairman Collin Peterson (a Minnesota Democrat) has two bills working. The first is essentially a renewal of the old farm bill, passed in ’02. It meets the “pay as you go" promise Democrats made when they took over Congress in January. (“Paygo," as it’s called, requires Congress to pay for new spending with either spending cuts or new revenue.) The second bill has all the costly goodies Congress would like to have in the farm bill — but can’t afford unless it satisfies the "paygo" requirements. Bill #2 will have more money for rural development, crop research, fruits, vegetables and organics and broadband access.
The main fight will be over crop subsidies — whether subsidies will be reduced and that money redistributed to other farm support programs and more general rural development initiatives. The bill is really about the future of rural America, as Richard Oswald has written.
One lobbyist told the National Journal that the odds are less than 50-50 that Congress will complete work on the farm bill this year. (South Dakota Sen. John Thune wouldn’t be surprised if Congress passed a two year extension of the current bill.) A House subcommittee has already recommended (unanimously) that the old farm bill be copied and passed this year without substantive change.
In other words, Congress is stymied. So what else is new? Congress can’t agree on an immigration bill. On stem cells. Energy. Iraq. Global warming. Like every piece of legislation — like every issue in the country — the farm bill has become a struggle between seemingly irreconcilable factions.
For instance, the farm bill is now part of what we here at the Yonder call the politics of the gut. Foodies have joined the fray. "This is not just a farm bill. It's a food bill, and Americans who eat want a stake in it," said Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin. And so the New York Times runs a story on its Dining In page about the farm bill — surely a journalistic landmark.
This map by the Economic Research Service shows the concentration of subsidies. The darker the green, the higher the proportion of farm income comes from crop payments. (Federal lands are in red).
The argument among gut activists is that by subsidizing corn and sugar, the federal government has lowered the price of snacks and, as a result, made Americans fat. They cite a study by the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy reporting that between 1985 and 2000 the cost of fresh fruits and vegetables increased nearly 40 percent while the price of soft drinks decreased by almost 25 percent.
The cost of a Big Gulp went down, so little Johnny bought a Coke instead of a banana — and little Johnny ended up with a 42-inch waist on his Wranglers. Well, maybe we are all suffering from “insidious consumption" caused by subsidized food prices. But for sure gut politics have brought city people into the farm debate. The Boston Globe carried a column asking for a “pro-food" farm bill, including support for organic fruits and vegetables. Other gut groups make the same argument.
There are a jillion factions nipping at the farm bill. The animal rights people are interested. The farm bill will carry aid for rural hospitals. Western ranchers want country-of-origin labeling enforced, and ag people argue about the need for crop insurance versus direct payments. Minority ranchers want attention. Farm bill backers support some kind of caps on subsidies that now go primarily to large ag operations. But they are reluctant to put a number on what that cap might be. Even the Catholic Church is holding hearings on the farm bill.
It’s all a mess, and it’s all to be decided by a Congress that has lost its ability to compromise. Yep, it’s showtime.
The Washington Post examined the disaparities between the amount of money spent on crop subsidies in the current Farm Bill and the amount spent on rural development. Here is the paper's breakdown of how Farm Bill money was spent in the Mississippi Delta