Fall's farm bill frustrations
By Seymour Klierly
Headed into the November elections, congressional approval ratings continue to be at historical lows. Whether it is the failure to pass important legislation, like the farm bill or even a budget, the political bickering, or attempts to pander to a voting bloc, from the outside Washington seems broken. Historically, farm bills are not a partisan issue; they instead pit rural and urban interests against each other. Unfortunately, that is not the case this year and American farmers and ranchers are being tossed around like a football before a college rivalry game.
Facts are that the 2008 farm bill officially expired on Sept. 30. No attempt at an extension was introduced, let alone brought up for a vote. The agriculture committees in both the House and Senate were able to pass their own versions of the full five-year reauthorization, yet only the Senate held a vote and passed the bill.
In a thinly veiled political hit piece, U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack used his cabinet position to offer an official statement about Congress' failure to pass the farm bill. "In a year that has brought its share of challenges to America's farmers and ranchers, the House Republicans have added new uncertainty for rural America. Unfortunately, House Republicans left Washington without passing comprehensive, multi-year food, farm and jobs legislation, leaving thousands of farming families exposed."
This expedient message from Vilsack continues the "blame House Republicans" overture of the White House. Sen. Mike Johanns, R-NE, knows that it takes both parties to legislate and that the farm bill only passed the Senate with the help of Republicans in a true a bipartisan vote. "'It's not lost on the Democrats--i.e., Nancy Pelosi, who leads the Democrats in the House--that the more heat they can put on the Republicans, the better it's going to be for them. So I really suspect that Nancy Pelosi has said to her members, 'stand down on this--let the Republicans take the heat until after the election.'"
Senate and congressional races are ratcheting up that heat as the farm bill and agriculture policy move front and center for voters. In Montana, Sen. John Tester, D-MT, is running for reelection against Rep. Denny Rehberg, R-MT; both are members their prospective agriculture committees. Another Senate race to watch is for North Dakota, where Rep. Rick Berg, R-ND, is battling against North Dakota former attorney general Heidi Heitkamp, D-ND, for the seat previously held by Sen. Kent Conrad, D-ND. In both races, the Republican representatives are being blamed for the lack of a farm bill even though both representatives serve on the House agriculture committee, which passed a bill.
Assigning blame and pointing fingers solely at House Republicans may relieve some frustration at the legislative process. However, using that same dissatisfaction as a political hot potato only sinks the country into a deeper hole of divisiveness. While the best "political moves" this year have not lined up with rural interests, blindly following partisan rhetoric will not break the "say or do anything to get elected" cycle.
Editor's note: Seymour Klierly writes Washington Whispers for the Journal from inside the Beltway.