2013 Farm Bill debate

The 2013 Farm Bill appears stuck in a logjam with no means of breaking loose.

August 27, 2013

The 2013 Farm Bill appears stuck in a logjam with no means of breaking loose. Understanding where the process is likely to move from here requiress understanding both the bill’s content and the broader political context in which it is being written.

Content of the Farm Bill: The Finish Line is Closer than It Looks

The agriculture committees in the House of Representatives and the Senate each passed versions of the farm bill in 2012 that were largely similar in content. The full Senate then passed the committee bill without major changes. The House bill, despite passing the House Agriculture Committee with a wide bipartisan margin, never reached the floor of the House. In 2013, the full Senate again passed a bill that was similar to the bill that it had passed in 2012. The House Agriculture Committee did likewise. The similar provisions of these bills provide a broad outline of how a new farm bill would be likely to look if it is passed:

  • Elimination of the direct and countercyclical payment programs for all program crops (corn, wheat, rice, cotton, soybeans and peanuts).
  • Introduction of a revenue-based risk management program for these program crops.
  • Expansion of the existing crop insurance program to include a wider range of both crops and risk management tools.
  • Continuation of the sugar program (loan rates for domestically produced sugar, an import quota limiting sugar imports and an acreage allotment program to prevent the accumulation of surplus sugar stocks).
  • Merger of several conservation programs and reduced conservation spending .
  • Replacement of the dairy price support and direct payment programs by a dairy program that protects the margin of milk prices over feed costs.

Minor differences in the House and Senate bills could easily have been resolved in conference committee had the House had passed a bill in 2012 or 2013.  When the committee bill was brought to the floor of the House in June of 2013, however, the bill was defeated by a vote of 234-195, with many members of both parties voting against passage. On July 11, the House voted 216-208, largely along party lines, to pass a bill that did not include a nutrition title. As this article goes to press, it remains unclear whether a conference committee will take up the two bills; the House leadership, though announcing its intention to pass a separate nutrition bill, has given no indication of when it will do so.

Politics of the Farm Bill: The Finish Line is Much Further than It Looks

In their recent book, It’s Even Worse than it Looks, political scientists Thomas Mann and Norman Ornstein trace the increasingly frequent political gridlock in Congress to changing behavior of the political parties. They emphasize the difference between the American separation-of-powers system, which is based on the political minority’s ability to block legislation and force the majority to compromise on issues, and a parliamentary system, in which the majority may govern with very little need to compromise with the minority.

In the opinion of Mann and Ornstein, U.S. political parties are now behaving as if they were in a parliamentary system where compromise is unnecessary. They write, “Parliamentary-style parties in a separation-of-powers [system of] government are a formula for willful obstruction and policy irresolution” because a determined minority can block the majority, and the majority has no ability to overcome that obstruction as is true in a parliamentary system.  As applied to that farm bill (and virtually all other legislation before Congress), this mismatch of legislative institutions with political party behavior has led to a seemingly endless process in which issues are never resolved.

The Farm Bill as an Endangered Coalition Animal

Over time, farm bill politics evolved into coalition politics, which was based largely on geographic and constituent interests rather than ideologies.  From 1933 to 1973, farm bills contained little more than price support programs that benefitted farmers. As American society became increasingly urbanized and the food system became increasingly complex, members of the congressional agriculture committees recognized that they would be unable to pass legislation whose sole purpose was to provide program benefits for farmers. In 1970 and 1973, the committees incorporated into the farm bill nutrition programs (the Food Stamp program, a predecessor of today’s Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program [SNAP]) in an explicit attempt to build a coalition of rural and urban interests capable of passing legislation. In subsequent years, other programs (conservation, etc.) were added to maintain the farm bill coalition as the complexity of the food system and the food policy agenda increased.

The late professor emeritus James T. Bonnen and graduate student Allen C. Grommet (Ph.D., 1975) examined in detail the building of the 1973 farm bill coalition. They concluded: “Urban and consumer interests were… absolutely essential to the passage of the 1973 act. In the future, unless stronger coalitions across non-farm interests can be built, agricultural legislation may not be possible in the form in which we have known it.”

Forty years after it was conducted, the work of Bonnen and Grommet is once again relevant. If the coalition of 1973 is dead, how can Congress pass any farm bill? As Mann and Ornstein have shown, the trends now affecting the U.S. political process are much broader than agricultural and food policy. But it appears evident that agriculture cannot escape these trends in any future legislative efforts.

--Prof. David Schweikhardt

[Article based on a presentation at Arkansas State University Feb. 13, 2013, available at: http://www.astate.edu/dotAsset/b0812d78-eb5b-4607-aa5e-e1cf3b8f83c8.pdf.] 

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