Our Turn

The 2007 Farm Bill has now been passed by the House of Representatives.  It includes sham reform on the crucial issue of farm program payment limitations, an issue of principle. 

     The payment limits amendment in the House was rejected by the Rules Committee (Chairwoman Louise Slaughter, D-NY).  That amendment was originally offered by Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI).  It was a “clean” amendment- it didn’t have any unrelated or “poison pill” provisions.  As a result of the decision by the Rules Committee, this amendment did not even receive a vote during the farm bill debate (which still has not begun).   No vote at all was taken on the issue of farm program payment limitations, perhaps the single most debated issue in the entire farm bill process.

      The Rules Committee has traditionally been viewed as a wholly owned subsidiary of the majority party’s leadership.  This seems to be no exception.  House leadership evidently decided that a vote on payment limitations could not be permitted to occur.  Perhaps they feel the issue is too controversial.  Perhaps they are worried the amendment would pass and upset the delicate egos of the House Agriculture Committee.

      My suspicion is that, win or lose, House Leadership did not want House Democrats to actually vote on true payment limitations.  After all, if Representatives vote on the issue an actual paper record of their position will be in place, and they will have to defend their vote when they go home for the upcoming August recess (gasp!).

     The states of Iowa and South Dakota have the strongest support for real payment limitations in the entire country.  How could Leonard Boswell (D-IA) justify an anti-payment limits vote to his constituents?  How could Stephanie Herseth Sandlin (D-SD)? They simply could not.  Now both are running around claiming “they got the best deal they could get” from the House Agriculture committee and they just had to vote for the Committee’s bill.  If there was a vote on the floor, neither could continue their ridiculous claims.  You can bet they had no desire to see a real payment limits amendment come up on the floor of the House. 

     The same goes for other experienced Democrats on the Agriculture Committee (because, after all, it was a Democrat who decided no vote would be held on payment limits).  Stephanie Herseth Sandlin (D-SD), Earl Pomeroy (D-ND), Tim Holden (D-PA); Dennis Cardoza (D-CA), John Salazar (D-CO):  These are all senior Democrats who now don’t have to cast a true vote on payment limits.  None of them- not one- stood up and said the payment limits proposal from Agriculture Committee Chair Collin Peterson was a complete and utter sham.  It is, and we wrote about that pitiful excuse for reform as soon as it came out.  Both Pomeroy and Herseth Sandlin essentially said “I wish it went farther, but it was the best we could do”.  Right.  Evidently, if the majority of the Agriculture Committee doesn't have the courage to support payment limits, neither do they. 

     And let’s not forget those first-term Democrats.  Speaker Pelosi and her allies repeatedly stated that they simply couldn’t support payment limits because it would just completely ensure their defeat in the next election.  That is quite the popular storyline in Washington, and one that stems from the insulting philosophy that farmers and rural citizens are only motivated by greed.  It also happens to be untrue.  None of those first-termers stood up and said “Speaker Pelosi, with all due respect, I do support payment limitations and so do my constituents. Particularly coming to mind are Nancy Boyda (D-KS), Tim Walz (D-MN), Zack Space (D-OH), Steve Kagen (D-WI).  All of them reside in districts that support payment limitations.

     Those who back this sham reform will have to answer to their constituents, no matter how strenuously they try to avoid the topic.  And the Center for Rural Affairs is now receiving a fair amount of criticism, much of it personal, from some of our traditional allies, people we consider friends. Those criticizing us say we should “get on board” with the House farm bill, because it is the best “deal” possible.  They say “necessary compromises” have to be made to pass a Farm Bill.

     We certainly recognize that the political process requires compromise.  But the issue of payment limits is not up for debate, and if one compromises on payment limits they are compromising on principle.  They are compromising on values.  Essentially, the concept of payment limits is that farm program payments should go to farmers, and they should not receive more than a specified amount of money.    The principle is that farm program benefits should be targeted to true family farms and rural communities that clearly benefit their communities far more than some mega-farm or industrial recruitment economic development strategy.  We can have legitimate debate over what the actual limit should be.  We can have legitimate debate over how that limit is structured, so that all regions are treated equitably. 

     What we will not compromise on is the principle that there should be a limit.  The Farm Bill that passed the United States House of Representatives compromises on this principle.  It contains loopholes that ensure the continuation of unlimited farm program payments.  In fact, it makes the already pitiful payment limitations in the Farm Bill even weaker.  For those who support a Farm Bill without a payment limit, we would like to know how they justify farm programs at all. 

     For years and years, Democrats on the House Agriculture Committee who do not hail from the South have repeatedly stated their support for strong, effective payment limits of the type written in the Senate’s Dorgan-Grassley bill.  Now they are in charge.  And they won’t even allow a vote.

     Of course, this isn’t really a partisan issue.  The situation of the past few days was created by Democrats, since they are in the majority.  But payment limits never passed the House when the Republicans were in charge, either.  Then again, most Republicans don’t run campaigns saying they are “friends of the little guy”.  Democrats do, and their hypocrisy makes this Farm Bill even more disappointing.

     The Farm Bill passed by the House does contain significant victories for those concerned with the future of rural America.  There are some new conservation programs worth supporting; funding for beginning farmer and rancher programs; newly authorized rural development programs (though not funded).  There are improvements in the research title as well.

    But the House of Representatives has now proven it is unwilling and unable to turn the Farm Bill around and focus its benefits on small and mid-sized family farms and rural communities.  That principle should be the founding philosophy upon which the Farm Bill is written.  We will continue to stand up and name those who compromised on that principle.

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