I HAVE interviewed Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack a few times and heard many of his speeches. Regardless of what you think about his politics, he is unfailingly courteous and polite. That Midwest farm boy childhood always shows through; he was raised that way.
So, when I read his comment about the House's failure to pass the farm bill, I was shocked by the harsh notes he hit.
Vilsack called the failed vote a "tremendous disappointment for all Americans. Twice now, the U.S. Senate has done its job and passed balanced, comprehensive legislation with overwhelming bipartisan support. Unfortunately, the House version of this bill would have unfairly denied food assistance for millions of struggling families and their children while failing to achieve needed reforms or critical investments to continue economic growth in rural America. As a result, the House was unable to achieve bipartisan consensus."
Gene Hall, the public relations director for the Texas Farm Bureau, wrote this just a day before the House (playing the role of Brutus) stabbed the farm bill in the back: "While left-wing environmental groups have attacked farmers and the farm bill for years, farmers now are being hit from the right by the Heritage Foundation.
"The conservative think tank has mounted a full-frontal assault on the farm bill recently passed by the Senate and now making its way through the House," Hall continued. "The foundation has run some opinion pieces attacking every part of the farm bill. It says commodity titles of the farm bill should be split from the nutrition and food aid titles. Somehow, the foundation wants you to believe that the 'farm part' of the farm bill would pass after you've angered everyone in America who considers hungry people part of their constituency. Good luck with that."
What we have is a turf war between extremists on the left and the right, and all the American farmer can do right now is "duck and cover."
Manning the front lines for the right's all-out attack on anything that's not strictly Tea Party approved are special-interest groups like the Heritage Foundation.
Complicating things is a Republican House majority that makes the shakiest of claims that Speaker of the House John Boehner (R., Ohio) is their leader. True, he is the current speaker, but a better description might be minister without portfolio, that tired old British Parliament term meaning "nice guy, no power" or the more American "all hat, no cattle."
The Republican renegades, generally ultra-right-wingers with Tea Party backing, show Boehner less respect than they show President Barack Obama. The real power in the House belongs to Rep. Eric Cantor (R., Va.).
Let me counter Hall's idea that splitting the "farm" part of the bill from the nutrition parts would result in both parts being killed off or seriously diminished in scope.
That's the intent of the Boehner-less brigade. By keeping the two parts squeezed together as the most unnatural of Siamese twins, it gives opponents of one plausible deniability by pointing to the existence of the other.
Don't like the size of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program but afraid to offend key constituents in your home district? You can always say you voted against the farm bill because too much money went to farm subsidies that only support "big ag."
Afraid of the backlash from big ag? Just say you couldn't, in good conscience, vote for a bill that encouraged more people to be "lazy takers on the public dole."
Let's do the right thing and encourage the House and Senate to split the two parts into separate bills, and let's encourage the House to admit that the real power on the right side of the aisle is in Cantor's hands.
Boehner needs to accept the oft-proven fact that he has no control, and Cantor needs to man up and take full responsibility for the House and its actions.
Most important, let's admit that the current farm bill has gotten too big and too loaded with special-interest pork barrel detritus to pass through the House in any reasonable form.
*Chuck Jolley is president of Jolley & Associates, a marketing and public relations firm that concentrates on the food industry.