In today’s programmed, pre-recorded, predictable world, the rejection of the Farm Bill by the US House of Representatives came as a shock even to those who were on the House floor. In other words, what happened last week was actually news that took all of us in the media and most in agriculture by surprise. Immediately after the vote, the name calling began by the politicians while lobbyists stood around scratching their heads and asking what happened. In the days since, there has been plenty of name calling and no shortage of speculation on why 234 Congressman, including 60 Republicans, voted NO to a Farm Bill that had solid bipartisan support in committee and generally good support from the farm community. On the surface, the speculation has focused on the political factors, but there is a deeper and far more sinister force at work that could ultimately keep any Farm Bill from becoming law.
Tempers got short and the dialogue got heated after the vote as both Republicans and Democrats blamed each other for the failure to pass a Farm Bill for the second year in a row. About the only thing both sides agreed on is that the no votes had nothing to do with farm policy. It was the issue of cutting funding from the food and nutrition programs that blew apart a carefully crafted compromise. It is the ultimate in irony that a Farm Bill that cut direct payments to farmers was derailed over a 2% cut in the SNAP program. While the failure of our elected officials to responsibly come to grips with our government’s bloated, expensive, and out of control entitlement programs is a serious problem, a more disturbing fact is that there are some very powerful people in Washington who don’t want to see any Farm Bill passed.
Indiana Farm Bureau President Don Villwock, a veteran of several Farm Bill battles, made this point when we talked just hours after the House vote. Leadership of both parties could have prevented the Farm Bill failure, but instead turned away and just let things deteriorate. Villwock postulates this is because they don’t care about agriculture and don’t care if a Farm Bill gets passed or not. As soon as the Farm Bill came out of the House Ag Committee, it became a target for all kinds of special interest groups. Moving the Farm Bill through the House was like being in a shooting gallery, with pot shots being taken from all corners of the chamber.
What is truly maddening is that everyone in the House knew that the bill they passed was not going to be the final bill. They knew it would have to be reconciled with the drastically different Senate bill and that when a final compromise was reached both the House and Senate would get to vote on it again. So all the debate, the long passionate speeches, and the endless roll calls on over 100 amendments was all for show. It was all about political posturing and soundbites for the news. In fact, before the fateful NO vote, it had been decided to put some of the more controversial amendments aside and deal with them in conference. In short, the defeat of the Farm Bill did not need to happen.
But it did happen, primarily because not enough people cared if a Farm Bill got passed or not. As Villwock pointed out, “Over 300 members of the House think their food comes from Kroger, not a farm.” They don’t know or don’t care how important crop insurance is to family farms, how vital conservation is to the rural and urban environment, and how vital agricultural trade is to the US economy. Both the House and Senate Farm Bill were not perfect, they had their share of bloat, special interest perks, and needless spending, but they represented progress on many fronts and significant budget savings in many areas. They were not a reckless waste of tax dollars as some groups have claimed.
Many of the new Congressmen who were elected last fall came to Washington with the goal of fixing what is wrong with government. But voting no on everything that comes along is not leadership, nor is it moving our country in the direction it needs to go. Sacrificing the needs and interests of farm families to make a point about food stamp entitlement programs is irresponsible. Hopefully, in the coming weeks, cooler heads will prevail and the House will again do its duty and address this nation’s farm policy. I also hope that our Congressional leaders will wake up and begin to understand just how important agriculture is.
By Gary Truitt