Not For Ag Eyes Only: Five Lessons from the Secret Farm Bill Fight | Civil Eats

Not For Ag Eyes Only: Five Lessons from the Secret Farm Bill Fight

Americans now face the holiday season with rising food prices and troubled economic waters roiled by Congressional gridlock. Nearly 90 percent of Americans disapprove of Congress, according to Gallup polling, and 2011 is on track to be Congress’s worst year ever for Gallup public approval ratings.

Given this backdrop, you’d think the Congressional agriculture committees would have understood that writing a secret farm bill tailor-made for their friendly agri-lobbyists and tacking it on to the super committee recommendations would only add to the toxic atmosphere permeating Washington. Since they didn’t, here are five lessons to be re-learned before the 2012 farm bill debate.

1. Secrecy makes for bad politics, bad PR, and bad policy.

Call us old-fashioned, but at the Environmental Work Group (EWG), we believe that new legislation needs to happen in the open, with full hearings and a mark-up in committee, and with debate and amendments on the House and Senate floors. This is especially true for legislation that covers food and farm policy affecting all Americans and that spends nearly $400 billion of taxpayer money. It wasn’t until after the super committee negotiations collapsed that the parade of defenders of status quo farm policy emerged, claiming a secret farm bill was a bad idea. These profiles in courage didn’t utter a peep of opposition during the profoundly undemocratic process. The man at the front of this pack is none other than Senate ag committee ranking Republican Pat Roberts of Kansas.

The secret farm bill was roundly thumped in the media, especially from editorial pages from Corn country to California. One-thing food reformers have learned (and the industrial ag lobby seems to have forgotten (see point 2) is that strong coalitions make a big difference. EWG joined Oxfam, Defenders of Wildlife, Taxpayers for Common Sense, and Americans for Tax Reform in opposition to the drafting of a farm bill through the Super Committee for fiscal, environmental, food security, and transparency issues. EWG either alone or with our coalition partners met with many congressional offices, including leadership from both parties and nearly every member of the Super Committee.

EWG also urged our dedicated supporters to get involved. They generated nearly 30,000 emails to members of the Super Committee and Republican and Democratic leadership to ensure that a secret farm bill wasn’t attached to the super committee proposal. Representatives Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) and Ron Kind (D-Wisc) held a briefing about EWG’s analysis of the revenue income guarantee proposal. Ironically this was the first congressional briefing for media on the secret farm bill. Congressman Kind and 26 of his colleagues also officially demanded an open and transparent process. And Rep. Earl Bluemenauer (D-Ore.) was an early critic of the covert ag committee process.

Also, our fearless friends at Food Democracy Now stepped into the fray and, according to their Tweets shut down the switchboard to the Ag Committee leadership offices. They are now offering a $500 shopping card to anyone who can produce a copy of the final version of the ag committee deal. EWG followed their action with a 30-second spot on CNN and Des Moines’ television, encouraging taxpayers to join the fight against the secret farm bill.

2. Subsidy lobby in disarray.

Any hope for serious reform in the secret farm bill was lost in the unseemly competition among the subsidy lobby to divide up the spoils from finally eliminating the utterly discredited direct payments. The result was a subsidy buffet designed to satisfy the demands of agribusiness lobbyists for corn, cotton, soybeans, wheat, and rice growers that ate up most of the savings from ending direct payments.

One of the prime subsidy buffet offerings was an entirely new entitlement designed to guarantee agricultural business income. Marketed as a safety net, in reality the so-called “shallow loss” program – stacked on top of already heavily subsidized crop revenue insurance – would mostly benefit the highly profitable mega-farms that harvested most of the direct payments the shallow loss program was supposed to replace.

EWG commissioned a study by Iowa State University economics professor Bruce Babcock that shows how current revenue insurance program costs have increased dramatically – tripling to $8 billion since 2000. Montana State University agriculture economist Vincent Smith wrote in Roll Call that “Any shallow-loss program can only be viewed as a transparent money grab by the rest of us, legislators and voters, unless we can be persuaded that farmers are stupid when it comes to managing their business.”

And the disarray doesn’t end there. Add into the mix the American Farm Bureau Federation, which opposed the shallow-loss revenue scheme, a move that severely complicated the process for ag committee leaders accustomed to a unified farm lobby adamantly defending farm subsidies. Competing commodity trade groups further burdened the secret process by throwing sharp elbows at their fellow groups so they could shove their own snouts deeper into the public trough. Even Iowa Governor Terry Branstad conceded, “big ag subsidies aren’t nearly as important to Iowa as they used to be.” This despite that state’s haul of $22.3 billion in subsidies since 1995.

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The secret farm bill finally bogged down when, according to reports from Politico’s David Rogers, the Congressional Budget Office concluded the subsidy buffet was a budget buster that cost too much.

3. Fear secrecy, not open debate.

Proponents of the secret farm bill repeatedly warned reformers that we should fear an open debate on the farm bill. Believers in the covert process asserted that nutrition, good food reforms, and conservation programs would fare far worse in open debate.

Defending nutrition assistance to the neediest is a top priority for EWG in farm bill deliberations, so it’s a concern that open floor action could lead to substantial nutrition cuts, even as more Americans than ever enroll in food assistance programs. But take one look at an amendment to the ag spending bill for the current year offered by Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala,), which would have eliminated the automatic qualification for food stamps for individuals who receive certain other benefits or assistance from federal programs. The Senate soundly defeated the potentially harmful Sessions amendment, 58 to 41, with Sens. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), Thad Cochran (R-Miss.), and Dan Coats (R-Ind.) voting against it. Those senators are anything but your usual liberals. This indicates that nutrition cuts won’t necessarily earn conservative votes in the House.

Farm politics are changing. The deck is still stacked by agribiz lobbyists flush with cash, but the five-year farm bill is no longer an insiders-only game. With record numbers of Americans on food and nutrition programs, rising food prices, increasing health care costs, and appalling school lunch, the well-heeled ag lobbyists have become the new beltway bandits, a moniker often reserved for government contractors. But the industrial agriculture establishment has had to endure close or losing votes on many issues in the past year, including crop subsidy limits and corn ethanol policy.

Commodity programs have long had a target on their backs by Tea Party types in the House, and it was that hostile environment that frightened ag lobbyists into embracing a secret farm bill in the first place. A floor fight will make the sparks fly, but it is the only way to achieve fundamental reform of food and farm policy.

4. Restart the 2012 farm bill.

Clearly, it’s time to restart the 2012 farm bill reauthorization in an open and democratic process. The general public has yet to see the legislation or learn its price tag. As EWG’s Ken Cook pointed out last week, if the secret deal is supposed to be the starting point for the 2012 farm bill fight, then the committees should release the proposal and discuss it out in the open. Our proposal for a real safety net for working farm families can be found here.

When we released a summary of the secret farm bill proposal leaked to us, it became apparent that commodity groups for wheat, corn, cotton and rice are still the darlings of the agriculture committees. Meanwhile critical conservation programs were slated for yet another huge cut.

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We were pleased that the leaked proposal did include some elements of a local food reform bill, offered by Rep. Pingree (D-Maine), but that is just the start of the national conversation about the best way to use tax dollars to fix our badly broken food and farm system. We need to invest in conservation and in a true safety net for working farm families — not more handouts to highly profitable mega-farms and city-dwelling absentee landlords.

The news that a lottery winner in Michigan continues to use his food stamp card because his lottery windfall didn’t count as “gross income” is troubling. What’s more appalling is that the leaked secret farm bill proposal aimed to end farm payments to single farmers with an adjusted gross income of more than $950,000 a year. This “limit” is particularly egregious, considering that farmers’ wealth is also expected to jump again this year. USDA announced Nov 29, that “net farm income will be up 28 percent this year and reach $100.9 billion, which would mark the first time that measure of agricultural profitability has ever exceeded $100 billion.”

5. Where’s there’s a deal there’s a way.

We have to be vigilant against another move to attach a farm bill to any moving piece of legislation (namely, the must-pass annual spending bill) this year. If the super committee was this close to a deal, the agriculture committees will keep trying to get something through without public scrutiny. Why? Because, as we’ve seen during the current Congress, passing legislation is hard. Democracy is hard. Compromise is hard — especially in this stark budget climate. But when the future of American food and farm policy is at stake, the hard fight is the right fight.

Given the political discontent evidenced by the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street phenomena, the 24-7 social media world and the growing good-food movement, more and more real Americans will be watching.

Heather White is Chief of Staff and General Counsel at Environmental Working Group. Prior to joining EWG, Heather served as Director of Education Advocacy for the National Wildlife Federation, Counsel for energy and environment issues for Senator Russ Feingold, General Counsel to EWG, a Florida Recount attorney for Gore 2000, Deputy Director for Women's Outreach for Al Gore's 2000 Presidential campaign, and an associate in the law firm of Bass, Berry & Sims in Nashville. Heather holds a bachelor’s degree from the University of Virginia in environmental science, and a J.D. from the University of Tennessee College of Law. Read more >

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  1. JackieG
    You want to tackle this problem?
    You drag the corporate reprobates in to court.
    Preferably without, a lawyer.
    It ain't easy.
    it is not that difficult either.

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