Few pieces of legislation before Congress have the far-reaching impact of the farm bill, which governs most U.S. agriculture and food policy, that must be reapproved every few years.
Last week, the House’s proposal to replace the current farm bill that expires later this year failed in spectacular fashion. What once inspired thoughtful policy debate on the agriculture industry, conservation, food assistance and more has increasingly become a proxy war for unrelated topics.
Given the importance of the farm bill, that’s a crying shame. Americans deserve better of their Congress.
At one time, hashing out the farm bill was among the most bipartisan exercises on Capitol Hill. Why? Because representatives and senators all sought to please key constituencies in their states, with all regions benefiting from ag policy, food stamps, environmental rules and more.
This process once represented a major win-win for all Americans. As Rep. Jeff Fortenberry correctly noted in the aftermath, “The farm bill is usually a unifying effort in Washington.”
Instead, this year’s version – which was admittedly flawed – died not on its own merits but largely because a small cadre of immigration hard-liners wanted to trip up an unrelated bill regarding “Dreamers.”
Some might call that playing politics. But therein lies the problem.
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Politics don’t have to be a zero-sum game. No compelling reason exists as to why Americans can’t enjoy both updated farm policy and much-needed immigration reform, beyond the people elected to the office deciding that scoring political points in an election year was more important than passing laws for those same constituents.
Meanwhile, every Democrat voted against the farm bill in protest against the proposal of work requirements for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program – which would add seemingly unnecessary bureaucracy, and costs, to a key part of the social safety net.
Their opposition was at least germane to the legislation at hand. An entire party voting in lockstep indicates an inability or unwillingness to consider the sprawling legislation as whole.
Yes, the bill was imperfect. But that will be the case in any body composed of humans.
Maybe we shouldn’t be surprised at how the first draft of this year’s farm bill crashed and burned in the House, given that its predecessor was instituted two years late after partisan congressional squabbling. Now, it’s somewhat fitting the outcome following this high-profile failure is likely a continuing resolution to preserve a document forged out of similar circumstances.
Nebraskans, both rural and urban, depend on many of the programs whose funding would run out when the existing farm bill expires later this year. They’re doing their jobs, day in and day out.
Unfortunately, the same can’t be said for members of Congress willing to jeopardize this massive bill at their expense.