I was about to write, “The debate over the next farm bill is about to begin.” I realized the redundancy of that statement. The debate over any farm bill never just ‘begins.’ To use a terrible pun, the debate is organic; an ongoing, living thing that never stops. It’s a perennial, like poison ivy. No matter what you do, no matter what kind of noxious fungicide you pour on it, the debate still survives. It will not die.
Just when you think the debate over the last bill is done - shortly after it passed - you realize it never went away. The various special interest groups that made the debate a blood sport never stopped fighting for their cause long enough to count the bodies on the battle field, they just took a moment - a second - to rearm and continue the warfare. They went underground for a few years, fighting a quiet guerrilla campaign until it was time to light up the skies again. And that time has come.
The farm bill is a monstrous thing with too many disassociated parts and too much money at stake to be easily debated and passed by a friendly, bipartisan congress, if such a fairy tale thing ever existed. USDA Secretary Sonny Perdue is supposed to act as the guardian angel of the newest version the bill but even a man as well-versed in the take-no-prisoners bumping and bruising of Georgia politics will find his religion and patience sorely tested.
Perdue has admirably said his goal in office is to “improve services while reducing regulatory burdens on USDA customers.” It’s a fine and worthy wish but choosing which services to improve and which burdens to kill is a digitally designed Gordian knot that is impossible to slice through with the sharpest of political swords. Even if Perdue was Alexander the Great, he would face certain failure.
There is simply too much money and too many layers to make this a manageable project. For every special interest group that walks away with a smile on its CEO’s face, there will be a dozen storming out of the USDA’s South Building headquarters vowing revenge.
I’m assuming, of course, that any CEO will walk away with more than a chilly but semi-relieved countenance. Outright wins will be few. The perception of major losses will be many.
Important Questions must be answered. Here are a few: How do we provide a farm safety net that helps farmers weather economic stress without distorting markets or increasing shallow loss payments? How far should we go to reduce the regulatory burdens of conservation programs while balancing them with necessary farm productivity? With the end of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and the possible death of North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), how can we Improve U.S. market competitiveness?
The TPP and NAFTA actions have severely wounded our world trade efforts. We can expect, too, that our obligations under international trade laws will come under question as our trading partners become increasingly suspicious of our intent and look to other sources to fill their import needs.
One of Perdue’s bloodiest battles will be over the SNAP program. He wants to support work as the ‘pathway to self-sufficiency, well-being, and economic mobility for individuals and families receiving supplemental nutrition assistance.’ That’s a battle that’s been declared, fought and lost for decades. Trump’s suggestion that we revise SNAP so that food boxes can be shipped directly to the needy is a political non-starter (a polite term for ‘disaster’) that will insure another defeat.
Of course there is his noble declaration that we must assure the scientific integrity of the Dietary Guidelines for Americans by working toward greater transparency and relying more on scientific evidence. Every change in the Guidelines I’ve ever witnessed starts with a wink and a nod toward ‘the science’ before it dissolves into an internecine war over the center of the plate, research be damned. With the current anti-science attitudes in Washington, the shape of the plate will be determined by the depth of the pockets of the beady-eyed lobbyists who prowl the South Building hallways with malice aforethought.
What should concern everyone, though, is the budget proposal offered by the Administration; expansive, even by Washington’s lofty standards. Despite a projected 10-year deficit of a trillion dollars, it cuts 15% from agriculture. If it stands, there will be ugly fights over the skinniest of the leftover scraps.
The battle lines have been drawn and the heavy artillery has been rolled out and aimed at the opposition. Pogo cartoonist Walt Kelly said it best, “We have met the enemy and he is us.”