The farm bill is dead. Long live the farm bill. By a vote of 198-213 the House of Representatives rejected H.R.2, the business-as-usual farm bill the House Agriculture Committee and House leadership tried to ram through with little debate. Lawmakers should take this opportunity to build support for a better farm bill by giving more people a seat at the farm bill negotiating table.
Farm bills epitomize all that is wrong in Washington, and this defeat is just the most recent saga in an unnecessarily painful drama. Debated once every four years, farm bills fly under the radar for all but the handful of members and special interests that directly benefit from the spending the bills authorize. This leads to all kinds of swampy problems. Self-proclaimed conservatives defending the sugar program in which the federal government tells processors how much sugar they are allowed to produce, restricts imports, and even buys “excess” sugar at inflated costs then sells it to ethanol plants at a lower price, all so Americans pay nearly twice as much for sugar as the rest of the world. Special carveouts like government guaranteed prices for sushi rice, bailouts for crop insurance companies, and preferential treatment for peanuts. And log rolling. Touted as a farm bill, 75-80 percent of the cost is actually for Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), aka food stamps. The program was added to the bill more than 30 years ago expressly to buy votes from members not in agricultural districts and avoid scrutiny of the agricultural side of the farm bill
This farm bill was even worse. Since passage of the last bill in 2014, there have been 52 public hearings within the House Agriculture Committee. Yet not one included a witness skeptical of increasing federal spending on the income subsidy programs for agricultural businesses. The House did have many SNAP hearings, but the most contentious change—an increase in work requirements for certain recipients—came to light rather late in the game, leading Democrats to disengage in the bill as it was debated in committee. Then House Leadership cut out much of even their own caucus when they rejected even allowing the House to consider one of dozens of amendments to tweak federally subsidized crop insurance or other farm business income entitlement programs.
The farm bill fiasco is just the latest example of bad process leading to bad results. The tax cut bill passed this year was a missed opportunity to fundamentally reform the code. The Congressional Budget Resolution, always used as a partisan messaging device, hasn’t even been attempted. The “regular” appropriations process is off the rails, replaced by omnibus after omnibus all completely ignoring any notion of budget caps. It doesn’t have to be this way. It shouldn’t be this way. It’s not sustainable.
A better farm bill can be built if more people are given seats at the farm bill negotiating table. This is especially important for the 295 million Americans without an elected member of Congress on the House Committee on Agriculture. We all deserve a chance to create a farm bill that better serves all Americans and all of agriculture.
We deserve, and can apply this principle throughout government. Have an open debate without political machinations that deliver legislation behind closed doors. People are disgusted with Congress because the process is broken. Change it. Start with actually getting people in the same room.
Governing happens from the middle, and long-lasting substantial reform comes from the willingness to have hard conversations and make tough decisions needed to serve everyone better. Increasingly partisan policymaking isn’t producing results. So let’s try something radically different.