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Embracing the hungry, rejecting the farmer

By Ken Root

Years ago, I was told by a politically savvy executive that you had to be careful what you threatened because it would cause the other party to embrace it. They would then defend that person or program furiously, even if they had no real regard for its welfare. This exact scenario is playing out in Congress with Republicans, in the name of reducing government spending, threatening to cut the Food and Nutrition program. Their actions have caused Democrats to embrace the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program very strongly and use it as the centerpiece for showing compassion to the unemployed and unfortunate, with the real goal of getting their votes. For agriculture, this has essentially destroyed the coalition that passed every farm/food bill since the 1960s.

Last week I moderated a panel with Congressman Dave Loebsack, D-IA, as the congressional spokesperson. Loebsack represents the southeast quadrant of the state with a constituency made up of agriculture, manufacturing and education. He is a moderate who voted for the first 2013 farm bill, even after his party defected in mass when Republicans passed an amendment that gave states incentives to require welfare recipients to enroll in job training or show that they were working to continue receiving aid.

Congressman Loebsack stated that the farm bill in the House of Representatives was beaten by ideologues on both sides. The second attempt was a “farm-only” farm bill that passed without a single Democratic vote. He said that he was working with a coalition to bring a balanced farm bill forward and had 81 members signed on. I pointed out that there were 435 members of the House and he would need three times his current number to achieve a majority. He knew that.

The reality today is that there is no point in a congressman standing in the middle of the road. The cover is “in the ditch” where you are either embraced by the kind and loving left (Democrats) who have 47 million food recipients designated as their charges or by the righteous right (Republicans) who fuel their own fervor that government spending must be cut and the lower echelons of our society must suffer with the rest of us.

Congress has returned to Washington, D.C., this week, to debate an issue that has no resolution. There may be some middle ground but not enough for a majority to stand on. Loebsack’s 81 moderates could shrink rather than grow. There is no strength or unity of Republican leadership that will encourage compromise. There is no need for Democrats to surrender the high ground. In the brief nine days the Republican-controlled House is in session this month, there are other contentious issues to debate. House members will get a confidential briefing on origin of the poisonous gas attacks in Syria. The Republicans will then decide whether to take action against the Syrian president or their own.

U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack, although a top-notch political animal himself, makes a valid point that running out of farm legislation is going to lead to some real confusion and complications within a few months. The permanent agricultural law, from 1949, was supposed to be a poison pill that could not be swallowed. Last year Congress took a dose of it and survived, so they are apparently going to take another in October. If enforced, many bad things come back and many good things go away. There won’t be parity for farmers, as some hope, but export market promotions will shut down along with a raft of other funding that will reach back to state agencies that cooperate with U.S. Department of Agriculture. You’ll get a list of them soon as the administration moves into “threat mode” in attempting to get House Republicans to agree to the Senate version of the farm bill.

Perhaps that is the only way out of this morass (a fitting word for this situation). The Senate passed a farm bill that covers all the bases and makes a four billion dollar cut in SNAP. It will work, operationally, for five years and bring total savings of 23 cooked books, billion to the bottom line of federal spending.

This is the first year of the new term, normally the best year to pass legislation. However, that is being complicated by House Republicans who want to fight, House Democrats who want to strengthen their base and an administration that wants to create a legacy. Farmers just want to farm. In the words of Rodney King: “Can’t we all just get along?”

Going into the final month of the 2008 farm bill extension, I see the congressional battle like a poker game. The Democrats hold two aces: one in the White House and one in the Senate. The Republicans hold a King on Syria, a Jack from the weak economy, a ten spot on immigration and a few other number cards that don’t match. They can bluff with the threat of shutting down government but that will only delay the inevitable. There is always the chance to bargain, but to do so requires everyone climbing out the ditches and walking to the middle of the road. That exposes them to their base of support and could well get the extreme members of both parties beaten in the next primary election because they didn’t hold the line.

For the farm and nutrition debate, the Democrats win. Even if they fold and walk away, they know that the current SNAP program will continue and the farm program will end.

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 kenroot@gmail.com.

Date: 9/16/2013

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