The 2014 Farm Bill passed by Congress and signed into law by the President has all the makings of a Hollywood epic movie. Three years in the making, it has all the elements of a blockbuster including drama, mystery, political intrigue, and a surprise ending. There are some outstanding performances from some of the principal players worth of an Emmy nomination, along with a strong cast of supporting character actors. And, like any big budget production, this one generated plenty of media hype. While the reviews are still coming in, there is already speculation of whether there will be a sequel.
The narrative begins innocently enough with a group of bipartisan lawmakers working to draft a bill that provides programs to help agriculture, rural America, the environment, and those who depend on food and nutrition assistance. Soon the specter of nameless political leadership began to take control of the process. This first manifested itself in the Senate, where the Democratic majority slid the bill to final passage without amendments from the GOP minority, who had been procedurally tied up and tossed in the cloakroom. The movie’s leading lady, Debbie Stabenow, Chairperson of the Senate Ag Committee, then seductively chided her House counterparts, “See how easy it is, just pass our bill and it will all be over.”
The House, as it turned out, was a house divided. The Republican majority was split into two warring factions: the members of the Agriculture committee who really wanted a Farm Bill passed, and those backed by the Tea Party who wanted to use the Farm Bill as a vehicle to make massive cuts in the bloated SNAP program. House Speaker John Boehner was busy trying to corral his unruly flock when, out of the wings, came Indiana Freshman Congressman Marlin Stutzman, astride a white horse of fiscal reform who, with his lance, loped the nutrition title off the Farm Bill, leaving it quivering and barely alive on the House floor.
It is at this point that the President and his minion Tom Vilsack, who have been watching from the sidelines, enter the scene with threats of a veto and righteous indignation over the demise of SNAP. Fearing a farmer backlash, the House passes both a Farm Bill and a Nutrition Bill. This is where the mystery and intrigue begin. A conference committee was appointed to craft a compromise that would pass Congress and be signed by the President.
The conference committee was very large and very pubic, but this was a diversion. The real work was being done by a very small yet very powerful group of players, far from the public eye. In a scenario worthy of a Sidney Sheldon or Dean Koontz novel, weeks go by with deals being made, deals being broken, lies being told, and compromises being made. The suspense builds as the future of American agriculture rests in the balance and no one really knows if in the end there will be a Farm Bill.
Then when the situation looks hopeless, word comes from behind nameless doors that a deal has been struck, a compromise reached. Conference committee members are told to rush back to Capitol Hill to see the 900 page bill that they have had little to do with drafting but must now approve. The final Farm Bill looks vaguely like its former self. The nutrition title has been surgically reattached, but with a few small pieces missing. The vastly different dairy programs in the House and Senate bills have been put into a mash-up that resembles combining Hank Williams and 50 Cent. There are also several new items that were not in either bill previously but, somehow, have been inserted.
The compromise is met with howls of condemnation from all quarters; but, in a plot twist at the end, the measure passes Congress easily and is signed by the President in Debbie Stabenow’s home state with all Republicans boycotting the event. The movie ends with a smiling Stabenow standing behind the President as he signs the bill into law, proclaiming, “This is not your father’s Farm Bill.” Pat Roberts, Chuck Grassley, Marlin Stutzman, and an embittered group of others, who were left out or cut out of the final deal, shuffle into the sunset vowing to fight another day.
But, will there be another day? While some confidently predict a sequel will be produced in 5 years, many close to the process quietly mutter this will be the last Farm Bill Congress will every produce. Yet, eager for a good drama, Hollywood insiders say there are plans in the works for a movie on Immigration Reform. Working titles include “The Long Journey Home” or “Get Out and Don’t Come Back.”
By Gary Truitt