The Super Committee had set themselves a Thanksgiving deadline to roll out a budget-cutting, bipartisan deal. Their goal is to present the country with working legislation that would – they hope – give the country a Christmas present the entire nation can rally around: working government. It certainly is a novel idea.
However, the powers invested in this ad hoc legislative body give it incredible latitude to let in bills on the sly. There is no more potentially damaging than the rumored “secret farm bill.” Hill scuttlebutt suggests that a coalition of Midwest legislators are gearing up to insert some pro-agribusiness clauses into the overall deficit reduction bill.
Behind its closed doors, it would not be much of an exaggeration to say that the fate of the country is being deliberated. Without outside scrutiny or room for external criticism, the Super Committee’s secrecy is meant to guarantee that partisanship does not obstruct its members’ work. Only the most naïve would assume that the higher calling of service to one’s country would prevent Washington’s routine horse-trading. But given the immense potential that the Super Committee holds, the political powers-that-be are hard at work trying to get their own riders attached to an ostensibly single-issue piece of legislation.
U.S. agricultural policy is set every few years. That’s when food safety and security activists jockey with lobbyists from Big Agriculture to ensure that their preferred policies get through Congress. This time, the Super Committee presents a different avenue to enshrining policy but given its secretive, behind-the-scenes nature, only the most connected parties will be able to influence its decisions. Those parties, invariably, tend to err on the side of the largest industries.
Agricultural policy tends to be set by agricultural concerns – go figure. But agriculture also affects everyone. From food safety to obesity to onerous farm subsidies, what gets included and excluded from congressional farm bills will, eventually, impact the daily lives of every citizen.
The chief recommendation of the secret farm bill is to reduce the current $5 billion direct payments from the federal government to individual farms. Slated to replace this is an expansion of crop insurance – an already expensive outlay of another $5 billion.
Crop insurance protects farmers from acts of nature and market downturns. It already is the fastest-growing cost of the current farm bill and, if expanded, might eclipse the savings derived from the current direct payments.
Implementing crop insurance as a substitute for direct payments might also encourage farmers to take greater risks on marginal land. Current regulations require farmers who receive direct payments to adhere to certain environmental restrictions to allow land to recover after periods of cultivation. Crop insurance policies have no such requirements.
What does this all mean though? Firstly, the stated goal of reducing federal farming outlays won’t actually materialize. The government will still spend large sums of money to keep certain farms afloat. Secondly, crop insurance would tend to benefit large agribusinesses to a greater extent than small farms. Direct payments allow small farms to plan for the future and maintain a healthy stock; insurance policies that only pay out if and when disaster strikes do not give them that sort of buffer zone. And thirdly, the lack of environmental restrictions attached to farm insurance could lead to the worsening of topsoil and water source conditions in America’s most productive and fragile lands. The only minimal benefit is seeing large agribusinesses, with the capacity to actually harness marginal land, take over delicate arable resources.
And this is just the tip of the iceberg.
The Super Committee represents a unique time for dirty legislature to go through on the nod. The potential damage that the farm bill could present might make it the dirtiest of the lot.
Photo Credit: Rhys Asplundh