Farm versus food
By Ken Root
Last week, I spent two days in the mark-up hearings for the U.S. Senate and the U.S. House of Representatives Agriculture Committees. It was a revealing experience, as my image of the committees and their interaction was inaccurate to a great degree. As a reporter, covering the full committee hearings, I was able to see each action of the chair and response by the members as individuals, political parties and regional coalitions. The real separation, however, was urban versus rural.
Members of Congress have to be responsive to their constituents or they will be defeated in the next election. Looking at the make-up of both agriculture committees, the members from predominantly rural and agricultural states and districts are at the table to represent commodity programs, specialty crops, conservation and rural economic development but so are members from districts that would be hard-pressed to have one traditional row crop farmer. These members are representing the voters in their districts and they are doing so through the USDA Food and Nutrition Programs.
Two weeks ago, I wrote about the growth of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, and last week I saw its supporters in action. The passion of the urban members of Congress is very strong and their power is growing. I would not be surprised to see a future chair of the Senate agriculture committee subscribe to an agenda that sends 90 percent of the money in a “farm bill” to food and nutrition programs.
At this point, the chair of the Senate Agriculture Committee sees herself as being from a farm state. Debbie Stabenow, a Michigan Democrat, could easily be urban in her viewpoint, but she devotes her personal attention to the fruit and vegetable growers of her state and her base of support comes from mainstream agricultural commodities. During the hearing, she allowed Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, a young, articulate and passionate New Yorker, give a plea to keep a program in place that would allow states to link home heating assistance to federal food stamp benefits. Gillibrand should not be taken lightly, even though the chairwoman disagreed with her premise that $10 of state aid should automatically turn into $90 of federal food aid. Gillibrand is pragmatic enough to speak up for New York farm interests but openly stated she would “fight for families who don’t make enough money to feed their children.”
In the House of Representatives, the committee seems weighted more toward rural and agricultural districts but those from the urban areas had enough passion to offset their counterparts even though they don’t (yet) have the votes. Congressman James McGovern from Massachusetts is very cause-oriented and has given 11 “End Hunger Now” speeches on the House floor. In the committee hearing, he attempted to shame the farm legislators into moving food assistance to be the top priority of the farm bill. His tactic was quoting the teachings of Jesus from the Bible. The southern legislators couldn’t let it go without responding and the committee went from “ Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me...” to “For you always have the poor with you...” (No separation of church and state in this debate.)
Democratic Rep. Marcia Fudge, former mayor of Cleveland and an urban member of the House Agriculture Committee, is an effective voice for recipients of food and nutrition. She campaigns for education and better diets, which none fault except the amount of money she wishes to spend on the programs.
The chair of each committee has great power to control debate and influence the vote. Both Stabenow and Rep. Frank Lucas, chairman of the House Ag Committee, were vocal in their approval or disapproval of amendments and would break a tie to their advantage whenever possible. The Senate votes by proxy, if members are not there, so Stabenow had her allies in her pocket each time she needed them. In the House, the members must cast their own vote, so Lucas would hold the floor open while staff ran to gather those who favored his position. If the make-up of either body changes, the pro-SNAP legislators won’t miss their chance to move the spending their way.
Following the House mark-up and successful passage of a bill that cut food aid by $20 billion, I spoke with Republican Congressman Steve King from Iowa. King played a major role in getting the committee to pass an amendment to require California to allow eggs from other states to be sold in their state. California legislators fought it strongly, as the state has blended animal welfare with food issues to require poultry producers to increase the size of cages and then block out-of-state producers from selling into California. King’s efforts put him on the map as a strong agricultural leader and he well could be the chairman of the committee in 2018 when the next farm bill is debated. In his comments to me, he seemed to believe that the majority on the committee would always be representative of farm interests rather than food interests. If he chairs the committee in five years, he will be right but Fudge or McGovern may find their way into the seat if the House swings back to the left in the interim.
Agricultural advocates are adamant that farm programs and food programs should be combined into one bill. That may remain the composition but it could well be that farm programs will continue to shrink and food programs will continue to grow. It may be that the “Red Sea” of conservative rural America will be parted by the advocates of urban voters while farm legislators continue to assume the public understands that farmers are the ones who produce food and will support them.
Editor’s note: Ken Root has been an agricultural reporter for 37 years. Root now does daily radio and television programming and is a columnist. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.