Memo to Congress: No Secret Farm Bill

Memo to Congress: No Secret Farm Bill

Thanks to the antidemocratic "supercommittee," the legislation singularly responsible for shaping our food system is being written behind closed doors.


Providing yet another reason for its 9 percent approval rating, Congress is attempting to write the nation’s next farm bill in secrecy—sneaking it into law as part of the deficit reduction package to be produced by the “supercommittee.”

This anti-democratic maneuvering could determine the shape of one of the most important—and controversial—pieces of legislation Congress considers, sometimes called the food bill because of its enormous influence over what Americans (especially children) eat, what food costs (here and overseas), whether our food is safe to eat and whether 45 million impoverished Americans (again, about half of them children) continue to receive food stamps. The bill also helps determine whether agriculture respects or pollutes our air, soil and water.

And the Farm Bill may not be the only law written behind closed doors and fast-tracked through the legisilative process, thanks to the supercommittee’s requirements.  Ben Becker, a spokesman for the Senate Agriculture Committee, rejects accusations of undue secrecy in the new Farm Bill even as he emphasizes, "We didn’t choose this process.  It was forced on all committees."

Reauthorized every five years, the farm bill is due for reconsideration in 2012. Food movement activists had promised the strongest, most unified campaign yet to reform the legislation away from its emphasis on lavish subsidies for agribusiness and environmentally destructive practices and toward family farms and sustainable agriculture [see Dan Imhoff’s “Farm Bill 101”].

Writing the bill in secret and sneaking it into law would not only pre-empt citizen involvement and violate democratic norms, observes In Defense of Food author Michael Pollan; it would also squelch the prospects for reform. “So now what happens to an important proposal like The Local Farms, Food, and Jobs Act, introduced by Representative Chellie Pingree and Senator Sherrod Brown?” Pollan asked in an e-mail interview with The Nation. “Does it even get a hearing? The writing of agricultural policy in America has never been a shining example of democracy at work; now, it threatens to devolve into a travesty.”

The proposed new version of the farm bill was at press time to be submitted the first week of November. It was devised solely by the “gang of four,” the two chairs and two ranking members of the House and Senate Agriculture committees and submitted to the supercommittee in hopes that it will be included in the deficit reduction plan, due by Thanksgiving. There were no new committee hearings on the new farm bill recommendations, no markups or votes. And if the supercommittee accepts the bill as written, there will be no possibility of amending it on the House or Senate floor or of voting on it separately.

Representative Collin Peterson, the Minnesota Democrat who helped draft the bill, defends the fast-tracking of the farm bill on the grounds that it will produce a stronger result than if the supercommittee were to act on its own. In addition, interest groups were allowed to submit proposals for the gang of four to consider in drafting their bill.

But that’s not democracy, protests Ken Cook, head of the Environmental Working Group, an NGO that has embarrassed corporate farmers by publicizing how much taxpayer money they receive in crop subsidies, sometimes for land that hasn’t been farmed in years. “Sure, people are submitting ideas, but the [four] members of Congress sitting around that table are mainly there to represent the interests of Big Ag,” Cook told The Nation. “They have made it very clear their main interest is in protecting a subsidy program for industrial agriculture…. Meanwhile, they reportedly want to cut roughly $4 billion from the food stamps program over the next ten years, at a time of economic distress, when we have 45 million people on food stamps in this country.

“If these are truly great ideas, let’s discuss them openly,” Cook argues, adding that his organization is mobilizing its 1.1 million followers and other parts of the food movement to say, in the words of a new TV ad, No Secret Farm Bill.

"Either the supercommittee would in essence write the Farm Bill, with no hearings or public input, or the Agriculture Committee and the communities we represent would recommend reforms," counters Becker.  "Even in the short time we were provided to offer recommendations to the super-committtee, we have actively sought input from farm, conservation, nutrition and other stakeholders and are including their recommendations as we seek to reform the nation’s agriculture policy."

"I agree with Mr. Becker that the process was imposed on the agriculture committees, but this process did not impose a directive to write an entire farm bill with no hearings…and no opportunity to amend it," responds Cook, who adds, “We’re hearing from a lot more [food movement] groups now, such as the Center for Rural Affairs, Bread for the World and Taxpayers for Common Sense, who are also starting to sound the alarm. So we feel we’ll be able to let Congress know that this is not OK—to use a draconian budget cutting exercise to avoid a democratic consideration of our next farm bill and lock up these issues for the next five years, especially when there is so much energy and interest out in the country in reforming our food and farm policies.”

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
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