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Lessons from a failed farm bill vote

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

While the U.S. House of Representatives was able to pass a farm bill July 11th, the June 20th failure of the farm bill was probably not a particular surprise to anyone who took the time to really look at it. The real question is: Did those of us in agriculture—that part of the first bill that represents only about 20% of the total—learn anything about what a dismally poor job we have done in getting our points across? Probably not. 

There were a number of factors that brought down the first House bill. They include: cuts proposed to SNAP/food stamps, an amendment adding a work requirement for SNAP recipients and changes in the dairy provisions. 

However, a more important and major contributing factor to the Farm Bill's defeat last month is the name itself. Public and Congressional perception is that Farm Bill means agricultural only—the 2% of the voting power that actually farms or ranches to feed the other 98%. The failure is the lack of recognition of how broad in scope the benefits are to society itself: a healthy rural economy, credit and rural development programs that help finance water or sewer systems in small communities, or research that might impact livestock disease or food safety. Combine that with a Congress so divided and partisan that any discourse to compromise and govern for the common good is impossible—and the bill is defeated again! 

In all probability, each of the large array of grower and agricultural interest groups are once again regrouping to pursue their own special interests. (Count the more than 100 amendments to the failed bill.) If the same dog-eared agenda of the past 30+ years is followed, a group consensus will appear, rather than a cohesive, strong lobby with well-funded strategy for the next round. 

The hard question to the agricultural production industry is what was being done before the bill went to the floor of the House for a vote.  What happened behind those closed doors with meetings of special interests? Who was “connecting the dots”? Who is listening to the consumers? What is driving consumer market preferences? Where are the programs to eliminate fraud from government programs? How do we help families who are in real need? And what is being done to educate the public—taxpayers who are taking serious interest in their food, rural water systems, publically-funded research and the availability of credit that helps build communities throughout the United States? I would venture a guess that the answers are: none or nothing.

Reaching out to those who are not part of one’s special interest group circle is not always comfortable. But it is high time that agriculture, within each of its special interests, started doing just that. It is time to develop a common, substantive message that all can support and agree on. Yes, that means that someone else might get a few pennies of what your special interests would otherwise get. But the endpoint could be much more rewarding. If action and effort to accomplish those goals is not taken, we will be as broken as Congress. 

Some of you are saying: “He just doesn’t understand politics.” I would argue that what we have in politics today is both damaging and unsustainable. There is no compromise, no interest in working together to do the job that politicians were elected to do. Not understanding or tolerating modern politics is, to me, an asset. 

A good friend of mine says: “You get what you reward, and you deserve what you tolerate.” I think that applies to the failed farm bill. It is past time to get to work and start building understanding among those impacted by this bill. In the process, politics needs to be set aside for the better and higher good. 

Hopefully, we will see some common sense emerge out of the ashes and reflected in the next version of the bill. Until then, I am skeptical, but hopeful.


Leonard S. Bull Leonard S. Bull (homebull@aol.com)
Animal Science Professor Emeritus, North Carolina State University, Advising Animal Agriculture and Environmental Issues www.ncsu.edu

View more posts by Leonard S. Bull

The views and opinions expressed in AgChllenge2050 blog posts are solely the opinions of the authors, and not those of Farm Foundation, NFP.