“I am a firm believer in the people. If given the truth, they can be depended upon to meet any national crisis. The great point is to bring them real facts and beer.” – Abraham Lincoln. On my trip to Washington last year, I visited the Lincoln memorial, upon which are carved in stone many of his famous quotes. I do not remember seeing the above quote among them, but it should be. In fact it should be carved on every government building in Washington, especially the Capitol, the White House, and the USDA. The truth is in short supply in our nation’s capital and this is especially evident in the current Farm Bill fiasco.
Inside the Beltway, there are three groups involved in the Farm Bill drama: the GOP leadership in the House; the Obama administration in the form of the USDA; and, in the middle, a bi-partisan group of farm state lawmakers who actually understand the importance of getting a Farm Bill passed. All three groups have engaged in deception, duplicity, and media manipulation in an effort to get what they want. Meanwhile, outside of Washington are the rest of us who are being marginalized and ignored and who will suffer the most if the Farm Bill impasse is not resolved.
Allegedly the sticking point that is keeping the House Farm Bill from coming to the floor is the price tag of the food and nutrient programs. Dozens of newly elected House members, who came to Washington on a Tea Party platform of just say no to everything, want billions more cut from what they see as a bloated social welfare program. Obama Democrats say the programs have already been cut enough and should not be cut more during an economic recession. Those in the middle say, just pass the bill and we will hammer out the numbers in conference committee.
The cost of the food stamp program, however, is a deception. What is really holding up action on the Farm Bill is political posturing. Each side wants to use the Farm Bill as a way to make the other side look bad and their side look good. The Farm Bill is not the only issue suffering this fate, dozens of very important issues have become tools of a political process that has become extremely polarized. Adding to this situation is the reality that agriculture has lost a good deal of the political clout it once had in Washington. What happened to agriculture’s storied power which produced 15 farm bills since the 1933 Ag Adjustment Act under Secretary Henry Wallace? It used to be not “if” there’d be a farm bill, but rather how much would be in it for farmers. The dairy lobby, the tobacco lobby, the sugar lobby and other segments of agriculture were legendary in their ability to move billions of federal dollars to their sectors. Those days are over; and, while farm groups have a strong voice on the Hill, there are forces at work that are much bigger and the shouts of “Farm Bill Now!” are falling on deaf ears.
The rhetoric surrounding the debate over the Farm Bill has produced some humorous, if not downright laughable, statements. One sign at the recent Farm Bill Now rally read, “If you eat 3 times a day you need a Farm Bill now.” This attempt to get consumers involved in the debate is fruitless and not exactly economically sound. The reality is that most consumers don’t know anything about the Farm Bill and do not think it impacts their lives in any way. Those who do know about the Bill think it is another government program that gives subsidies to big farmers or pays them not to grow food. Another statement that certainly belongs in the ludicrous category is the assertion by Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack that the SNAP food assistance program is a form of economic stimulus. He claimed that 14 cents of every SNAP dollar goes back to the farm and that spending billions to give people free food is a way to support the farm economy. If that is the kind of economic thinking we can expect from 4 more years of an Obama administration, we are all in deep doo doo.
Missing from all this are the facts of which old Abe spoke. The fact is that agriculture has been doing pretty well over the past 5 years, much better than the rest of the US economy. The fact is that funding for conservation has done more to protect and improve the environment than the hundreds of billions of dollars spent by the EPA. The fact is that the commodity marketplace has changed drastically in the past few years and that grain and livestock producers need safety net programs that do not guarantee them an income but help them manage their risk, help them cope with natural disasters, and give them the freedom to respond to changing market conditions and signals.
Our leaders, at both extremes and in the middle, have not served us well. They have all been more focused on their concerns than on our welfare. They have listened more to the media than to their constituents. For the next few weeks they will be on the campaign trail, so this would be an ideal time to engage them in conversation about the fact that the important industry of agriculture is not being served well by a politically divisive and polarized legislative process. Perhaps, as Mr. Lincoln said, if all parties sat down with the facts and a pitcher of beer, a solution to the problem could be found.
By Gary Truitt