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.