If you tuned into the webcast debate of the Senate Ag Committee approving its long overdue 2007 farm bill Oct. 24 and 25, it was easy to see and hear why this Democratically-led Congress, despite its upset political triumphs of just a year ago, is now held in lower public esteem than scarred, war-torn President Bush.
For the best part of both days, Republican and Democratic farm senators alike yammered and foamed about “reform,” “the safest, cheapest food in the world” and “the backbone of our great nation.”
In the end, after most had pulled their stuck-out chins back into their sunken chests, the committee, without one dissenting vote, passed a 2007 farm law that more resembled a bucket of yesterday’s warmed-over hamburger than tomorrow’s needed meat.
Status quo. Status quo trumped reform; shamelessness trounced principle. Status quo is everywhere in the Senate farm bill.
Big ag received nearly everything they asked for: no hard caps on farm program payments; no cuts to the 7 percent of farmers who pocket 60 percent of the program money; more fat for an already fat crop insurance industry; no reform of environmental programs that continue to pay bad land and water stewards up to $450,000 to clean up the messes they make.
All were driven by the shameless quest of major farm groups to get a bigger share of baseline farm bill spending for themselves. That family fight was highlighted by the rift between the American Farm Bureau Federation and the National Corn Growers Association over the association’s push for an alternative farm program payment scheme called Average Crop Revenue.
Payments. Farm Bureau fought the alternative because it believed Average Crop Revenue would undermine the current crop insurance program and, sooner than later, shift direct farm program payments – money sent to farmers for, in truth, simply breathing – more to conservation, energy and rural development.
In the end, a watered-down version of Average Crop Revenue was included in the final bill so everyone could declare victory.
In short, the National Corn Growers Association got its complicated, alternative payment scheme; Farm Bureau “protected” the crop insurance industry (in which it is a huge player) as well as direct payments to its breathing members and the Senate committee got to use the word “reform” in its post-passage press releases even though fewer than 10 people in Washington could explain the Average Crop Revenue program that won’t begin until 2010.
Blame. Most of the blame for mish-mashes like this can be traced to the lack of leadership; in this case, the disappearance of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada.
Unlike negotiations that produced the House farm bill – where Speaker Nancy Pelosi stepped in to discipline Democratic aggies to get a bill done and done on time – Reid largely watched as numerous senators bypassed, undercut and generally mauled Ag Chairman Tom Harkin of Iowa.
Two of Harkin’s boldest muggers were Democratic colleagues Kent Conrad of North Dakota and Max Baucus of Montana.
The two, from their perches, respectively, as chairmen of the Senate Budget and Finance committees, all but dictated the broad outline of the farm bill to Harkin by tightly controlling, then earmarking, the money their committees gave him to work with.
The messiness of that process assures an even messier fight when Harkin brings his bill to the full Senate sometime after Nov. 4.
Passage. Upon passage (and it will pass, although it faces several amendments) a Senate-House conference committee must marry the two, broadly similar bills together before each chamber votes on the final version.
Little in that final bill, however, will be true reform because neither bill features reform now. And simply saying it’s so doesn’t make it so.
(Alan Guebert’s Farm and Food File is published weekly in more than 75 newspapers in North America. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.)
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