Last week, the House and Senate agriculture committees started their mark up of a new 5 year Farm Bill. While the Senate finished its work in a record 3 hours, the House started at 10am and did not take a final vote until almost midnight. Thanks to modern technology, I was able to spend last Wednesday evening with one ear on the House mark up and both eyes on a Hockey game between the Chicago Blackhawks and the Detroit Red Wings. The first goal of the game was scored by the Hawks, and it was a power play goal. For those less cultured folks, a power play in Hockey is when one team has a man advantage because the other team committed a penalty and has one of their players off the ice in the penalty box. Given the fierce rivalry between Chicago and Detroit, it was a very physical game with a number of penalties awarded on both sides. But power plays were also taking place in the House hearing.
While we in the farm media report on the big Farm Bill issues like Crop Insurance, target prices, conservation, and nutrition, the reality is that the Farm Bill has become a bloated catchall bag for a bewildering amount of special interests. Listening to these lawmakers paw through thousands of items and amendments is mind numbing to say the least. As the evening wore on, some things became clear: the USDA is simply too big to be managed, and the Farm Bill is a big, power grab by big government.
In the grand scheme of things in Washington, the USDA is not the premier government department. The State Department, the Treasury, and the Justice Department all get the attention; but, when it comes to impacting the lives of Americans, the USDA does the heavy lifting. Inspecting food, running Customs, maintaining the National Forests, passing out food stamps, granting mortgages for rural homes, conducting research, overseeing rural electric, internet, and telephone service, making school lunches, providing international food air, running 4H programs, administering crop insurance, writing dietary guidelines, and conserving soil — the sheer diversity of this department is incredible. Yet we put one person in charge of this agency, usually a political appointee with no experience in any of these areas; and every 5 years write one piece of legislation to direct its course. No wonder things are such a mess.
The Farm Bill is filled with thousands of programs, regulations, directives, and definitions that nobody — including the people who write it — can really comprehend it. During the mark up amendment, after amendment was presented dealing with little known programs and local situations. For example, one amendment directed the USDA to spend 5 million dollars to study the conditions of roads in the national parks system. Another amendment required the Drug Enforcement Administration ( DEA) to reverse its decision to ban veterinarians from carrying controlled substances on farm visits. This amendment was withdrawn when it was pointed out the Agriculture Committee did not have jurisdiction over the DEA.
The Farm Bill has also become a battleground for some of agriculture’s most controversial issues. An amendment was submitted to create a checkoff-funded promotion program for certified organic products. This amendment was rejected when Committee Chairman Lucas pointed out that organic agriculture was a process, not a product. Several checkoff programs were authorized in the House version including one for the stone industry — now there’s a truly deserving agricultural product.
The Farm Bill has also become the battleground over animal welfare. Amendments banning horse slaughter and regulating the sizes of chicken cages caused long and spirited debate. Iowa Congressman Steve King has an amendment in the House Farm Bill that would prevent some of the strange and restrictive agriculture regulations adopted in California from being forced on other states. This is a direct attack on HSUS and its practice of using ballot proposals in liberal states to advance their anti-agriculture agenda. While King’s measure is well-intentioned, it the Farm Bill the place for it?
As the House and Senate enter floor debate on their respective Farm Bills, you will hear lots of talk about how market-oriented these bills are and how they reform US farm programs. In reality, these Farm Bills, like those before them, only increase regulations and put the government more and more in charge of agriculture. The Chicago Blackhawks are among the best teams in the NHL in preventing goals during power play situations. We need more voices in Washington who are good at stopping the big government power plays that happen on Capitol Hill.
By Gary Truitt