THE HOUSE of Representatives has failed once again to pass a farm bill, and we are being encouraged to see this as further proof that Washington is broken. Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) cannot control the right-wingers in his caucus, Democrats cry. Democrats went back on their promise to support the bill,Republicans counter. Now what will happen with really hard issues like immigration, pundits moan.
Pardon us for not rending our garments at the downfall of a measure that would have lavished tens of billions of dollars in subsidies on one of the most prosperous sectors of the U.S. economy while cutting $20 billion over 10 years from a major program for the poor, Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). The bill includes costly milk supports and sugar protectionism but would have left mostly unchanged wasteful international food aid practices in defiance of a strong Obama administration reform push.
Indeed, all those lamenting the supposedly dysfunctional House overlook the veto threat that the White House issued Monday. The statement quite properly noted that the bill would cut aid to needy Americans while increasing “already generous crop insurance subsidies at a cost of nearly $9 billion over 10 years to the Nation’s taxpayers.”
Here’s what’s really going on. For decades, the farm bill has epitomized bipartisanship and coalition-building at its worst: an unholy alliance of urban and rural lawmakers of both parties who supported each other’s interests — nutrition programs and producer subsidies, respectively — without having to justify either one on its independent merits. The taxpayer footed the ever-increasing bill, which, in the just-defeated House version, would have been $940 billion over 10 years.
The bill’s proponents say that figure represents a 10-year savings of $33 billion over current law, reflecting the elimination of direct payments to producers in favor of a new crop insurance program. Talk about dysfunction! Only in Washington could it be considered progress to enact this cosmetic reform, which would slightly reduce a grossly excessive “safety net” for a non-needy business — assuming, of course, that circumstances don’t drive the costs of the crop insurance well beyond projections.
Now, a confluence of forces — the rise of budget-slashing tea party Republicans, a deep recession that has forced nearly one in seven Americans onto the SNAP rolls and, last but not least, a boom in the supposedly struggling farm belt — has upset the old farm bill log-rolling game. This creates new risks, chief among them that the poor’s interests will be sacrificed to those of the powerful agribusiness lobby.
But there are opportunities as well: a chance to really debate this nation’s outmoded and inefficient agriculture policies and maybe, just maybe, reform them. “K Street agriculture lobbyists were stunned Thursday by the House defeat of a $940 billion farm bill and were scrambling to figure out their next move,” The Hill reported. Sounds like a good news story to us.