The politics of the farm bill

The farm bill is the worst form of compromise except for all the others; it’s a 900-page, $956 billon colossus, as dense as it is inscrutable.

The five-year bill passed the U.S. House of Representatives on Jan. 29, 251-166, with two Democrats from Washington’s delegation, Reps. Adam Smith and Jim McDermott, voting no because of whacks to the Supplemental Nutrition and Assistance Program.

The mosaic of interests, the political horse-trading, the willingness to hold hostage the food stamp program: The farm bill defines lawmaking down. In the age of gridlock, incremental changes are cast as victories.

The deficit will be reduced by more than $16 billion, largely by rejiggering agriculture subsidies, including elimination of direct payments to farmers for not growing crops. The cuts to food stamps are viewed through a harm-reduction lens (more characteristic of a developing country): House Republicans wanted to chop $40 billion from the program, the Senate looked at $4 billion, and the final compromise was $8 billion. SNAP recipients won’t get the heave-ho, they’ll just have less to eat.

There were a few bright spots. The compromise showcased the negotiating savvy and leadership skills of Rep. Suzan DelBene, D-Medina, the most impressive freshman lawmaker in the Pacific Northwest. DelBene fought and lost on a few issues including SNAP and dairy reforms, but she managed to incorporate into the bill an employment and training pilot modeled after Washington state’s Basic, Food, Employment and Training program. She also helped secure funding for specialty crops and organic farming, a boon to Washington’s fruit and vegetable farmers.

Here is the new normal of incrementalism. Life and lawmaking as it is, not as it could be.

As Sen. Patty Murray said in a statement, “Building on momentum from the bipartisan budget deal I reached with Congressman Paul Ryan, the farm bill we’re now considering represents another critical compromise in which no one got everything they wanted, but colleagues from both sides of the aisle produced legislation that will help families, businesses, and our economy continue to grow.”

Sen. Maria Cantwell underlined her program to make school lunches healthier. Rep. Rick Larsen inserted language to protect private forest owners and the environment by maintaining Clean Water Act standards for forest roads.

We desperately need a farm bill, and so we have a mosaic. The lowest common denominator is better than no denominator at all. Or so we’re told.