November 5, 2011
When to be grateful for an oligarchy—Or, why the Ag Committee chairs writing the Farm Bill now without a normal democratic process is likely better for public health
Rumor has it the next Farm Bill (minus a few titles) will be completed by the Ag Committee Chairs and handed to the “Super Committee” as early as today. The blogosphere has been atwitter with concern over this undemocratic process and there is a bipartisan effort in Congress to demand the Farm Bill be written through the more usual process—i.e. hearings on Capitol Hill and in the field, numerous briefings by interests groups, many meetings with advocates and Hill staff, etc., all taking place over months and months with the resulting bill being a true representation of the full populace’s input.
The reality is past Farm Bills have not truly represented the full populace’s interests and needs. (Side note: what I am about to say is done keeping in mind that the majority of Farm Bill dollars go toward the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program [SNAP], formerly known as food stamps. This is a vital program helping over 45 million Americans avoid hunger and should be protected). Aside from SNAP, most Farm Bill dollars have gone to production agriculture (think miles and miles of corn, cotton, wheat, sugar or soy) via crop insurance, commodity subsidies, research and/or technical assistance and very little money has gone to essential programs that are good for public health (think farmers market programs, nutrition education, organics, conservation and community food projects). For a visual on how these dollars amounts compare, check out CLF’s Farm Bill Budget Visualizer. This imbalance exists for a number of complex reasons including history, past perceived needs for the country, and the deep, deep lobbying-dollar pockets of industrial agriculture.
So, given that the few and the powerful have controlled the writing of past Farm Bills—legislation that has perpetuated a system that has negative impacts on public health via the types of food available and damaged ecosystems—why am I more comfortable with this behind closed-doors-four-Ag-Committee-Chairs-in-charge process?
Because there are those programs in the Farm Bill that are good for public health and I am afraid that if the Farm Bill were to go through a normal process and be debated on the floor—especially the House floor—that numerous programs key to public health would be left on said floor and never make it into the bill.
If the version of the bill I’ve heard is coming truly comes, fruit and vegetable research and organic programs will be protected. Conservation programs will be cut, but not as much as they might be at the hands of a House trying to eliminate the ability of the Environmental Protection Agency to do its job. With the four in the room debating this bill it has been 3 against 1, but that one (Senate Ag Committee Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow) is powerful, and she understands the importance of programs that support agriculture systems outside of the traditional production-based one. While she believes there is room in America for all kinds of agriculture, she has been a champion for programs that are key to supporting public health and has been working hard to protect them. Not only that, she and the Senate Agriculture Committee staff have been seeking input from advocates for several months, a process that could be considered more democratic than traditional hearings which seldom feature a balanced slate of witnesses.
So, in an ideal world, would I want a democractic process for the Farm Bill? Of course. But even if it weren’t this superfast, super committee, super chaos, the Farm Bill still wouldn’t be fair in our current political power landscape.
Until we have campaign finance reform, or at least a lot more public participation into the Farm Bill process by the many Americans who want programs supporting public health, the voices shouting for smaller government and the numerous agribusiness lobbyists are going to be the loudest. And, since they aren’t in the (actual) room with the four Ag Committee Chairs writing this current version of the Farm Bill. I have to say, I feel less nervous than if the normal process were unfolding.
That said, the Center for a Livable Future, and many partners are working hard to shift the current normal for the future so that more Americans can be involved in the legislative process that influences what kind of food system exists in our country. Anyone who eats should care about the Farm Bill and we’re here to support folks in learning more about it, why it matters, and how to get involved. See here to learn more.