We appear to be right up on it- a farm bill will probably pass Congress before May 16th. It appears the deals are (almost) done. All that remains are few contentious issues, and we're not all that concerned with how those turn out because all of the options on the table, frankly, stink like a hog lagoon in mid-August.
So while we haven't seen the final language of the entire farm bill, we have a pretty good idea of where everything stands. There are wins, and there are losses, but perhaps more important is to remember where we are and where we came from.
Two years ago, when I started working at the Center for Rural Affairs, there was an uncertain aura around the Farm Bill. Nobody really knew what all could be accomplished, but we definitely knew that there was going to be intense public interest in the bill, more than ever before. The Michael Pollan effect was multiplying rapidly. There was a general consensus that good things could be done, but questions about how much we could actually succeed at.
And then there was a real earthquake- the 2006 elections. Democrats took the House and the Senate, and it seemed that a new day had dawned. Hopes soared. We sat around and looked at each other- two Midwestern Democrats, chairing the Ag Committees? Those payment limits-hating Southerners are in the minority? Are you kidding me? We're going to kick some ass, take some names and generally turn the farm policy world upside down.
This was the chance, this was it- the stars had aligned for real reform. And I don't mean pie-in-the-sky impossible reform, I mean things like Dorgan-Grassley payment limits, which almost succeeded in 2002. Maybe a ban on meatpacker ownership of livestock, which was the law of the land for 50-odd years. I mean the big fights where there is real opposition- where corporate agribusiness (who don't care much about conservation programs one way or the other) would fight all-out to kick your ass, but this time you were going to win.
But, as we all know, that did not happen. Y'all know how it went. A Kent Conrad-Saxby Chambliss alliance came along and essentially smacked down hopes for real structural reform in the Senate. Good old boy Collin Peterson turned out the not as good as we had hoped (though others had warned us about this), and he managed to get a certain Nancy P. on his side. Those writing the farm bill had a remarkable ability to ignore what was happening outside of DC while they were writing the bill. Commodity prices go through the roof, ethanol is the hot ticket, seventeen bazillion groups are calling for real subsidy reform, not nearly enough money is around for things like conservation and rural development. What's the response of those writing the farm bill? "We need to protect our commodity program baseline".
If you don't know what baseline is, good for you. Because at the end of the day, all of the terminology, the insider parlance of these unfortunate times, all of the "you need to understand how it works in Washington" rhetoric is merely a tool to disenfranchise YOU. It is how your opinion and your voice is summarily dismissed by the DC grand poo-bahs.
But we did win some things, and you should be proud; I am proud to have been a part of this campaign with you, and I look forward to the next one. I particularly look at funding for beginning farmers, money for a rural microenterprise program, money for the newly renamed, ever changing Conservation Stewardship Program. We're grateful for those investments, and they will do real good if this farm bill becomes law.
But- but- it isn't enough. This bill, as currently written, is not worthy of passing Congress. There are wins, but the magnitude of those wins is not anywhere close to the magnitude of the opportunity squandered by those who claim to represent family farms, sustainable agriculture and rural America. When this bill hits the President's desk, he should veto it. And then Congress should sustain that veto, pass a one year extension, and start over again. Because this farm bill ain't worth it.
We will have the opportunity to fight again, and despite my occasional reputation as an irredeemable cynic, I have real hope that we can do better, that we can win more, that we can get a farm bill that is better than the one about to pass Congress. And we can try again in 2009. But if the bill becomes law, we will have to wait until 2013. I'm not willing to wait that long, and many of our small towns can't wait that long. So get out the veto pen, Mr. President, and do the right thing. Kill this farm bill.