“The great cities rest upon our broad and fertile prairies,” declared William Jennings Bryan in the essential passage of his “Cross of Gold” speech to the Democratic National Convention. “Burn down your cities and leave our farms, and your cities will spring up again as if by magic; but destroy our farms and the grass will grow in the streets of every city in the country.”
Once upon a time, political leaders cared about farmers and rural America. Even if they debated with regard to the best approaches and policies, neither Democrats nor Republicans would dare neglect the voters who lived beyond the edges of the great cities and their suburbs.
Now, however, presidential candidates and parties can finish conventions with scant mention of rural America. And the US House of Representatives can bumble through an election year without enacting a farm bill until the last possible moment.
The point here is not to suggest that any farm bill that might be considered by the House in coming days will be an ideal vehicle for farm and food policy. It won’t be that. Guaranteed. Nor, for that matter, is the version of the measure—the Agriculture, Food and Jobs Act of 2012—that in June passed the Senate with the support of progressives such as Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders and Iowa Senator Tom Harkin as well as some responsible Republicans. The National Farmers Union, the National Family Farm Coalition and other progressive farm and rural organizations can point to plenty of areas where federal farm and food legislation can and should be improved.
But after a devastating summer of droughts saw more than half of US counties—1,584 counties in thirty-two states, as of early August—designated as disaster areas, the need of working farmers for the support and certainty that is provided by a comprehensive farm bill has rarely been more pressing. At the same time, with unemployment and under-employment still high in much of the country, the need not just to maintain but to strengthen the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (food stamps)—historically a major component of federal farm bills—is real and profound.
Unfortunately, Wisconsin Congressman (and newly minted vice presidential candidate) Paul Ryan and other House Republican leaders have for months delayed action on the farm bill, refusing to bring the Senate legislation up for a House vote, trying to score cheap-shot debating points with regard to food stamp funding and by all appearances exploiting differences over the measure for fundraising purposes. Legislation that could have been approved by the House in June languishes in September.