Stick and carrot
By Seymour Klierly
In 1938, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed into law the Fair Labor Stands Act, which mandated a minimum hourly wage of 25 cents, a considerable wage when a gallon of gas cost on average 10 cents. The same year, Orson Welles caused panic when his radio broadcast of "War of the Worlds" was too realistic. Today's America has little in common anymore with the pop culture, let alone economic difficulties of 1938. So why would we revert back to agriculture policies of bygone era? The sad truth is that representatives and senators often need prodding to actually govern.
Every farm bill has a story to be told, but the 2012 farm bill, or lack thereof, will be remembered for the constant flirtation with permanent law. Failure to pass new legislation does not mean that Washington simply stays out the way for rural America; in fact it's the opposite. Without passing an extension or a full reauthorization, Congress puts in motion permanent law to be enforced at the beginning of January 2013.
The Agricultural Adjustment Act of 1938 and the Agriculture Act of 1949 are often the two pieces of legislation described as permanent law. These policies require price supports at parity levels for several commodities and obligate U.S. Department of Agriculture to intervene in the market place to reach those prices. After the 1949 act, all new farm bills have been amendments to the 1938 act and contained suspensions of the permanent laws. Traditionally, as time runs out members are forced to decide whether or not they would pass modern legislation or revert to a time when the federal government heavily supported agriculture and interfered with the marketplace.
While there have been similar skirmishes, the 2008 farm bill had a series of extensions to prevent permanent law, farm bills are a somewhat regular piece of legislation. With a declining population of farmers and ranchers, new laws regarding agriculture policy have been passed with historical regularity due to a combination of threatening to revert back to permanent law and USDA's role in nutrition programs.
The carrot for many urban members of Congress is the nutrition title. While representatives for New York City or Miami do not have conventional farmers in their district, they do have constituents that rely on government assistance. Whether it comes in the form of Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (or SNAP, formerly food stamps), school lunches, and the Women, Infants and Children Program, there are plenty of incentives to vote for the legislation.
Splitting the farm bill into separate food and farm bills may sound like a simple alternative to the song and dance of 2012; however, it ignores political realities. Agriculture still has a voice in Washington because of ties to urban members. In the same vein, repealing permanent law would mean fewer negative impacts for not passing a full reauthorization of a farm bill. Congress needs pressure to act, deadlines to run up against, and consequences for inaction. It may not be always be a pretty process, but at least it beats the Great Depression and fears of alien attacks.
Editor's note: Seymour Klierly writes Washington Whispers for the Journal from inside the Beltway.