The Politics of Poverty

Ideas and analysis from Oxfam America's policy experts

Back room deals

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If the Ag Committees would have their way, the next Farm Bill will effectively be authorized with no floor debate at all. Neither Tea Partiers nor Occupy Wall Street supporters should like it, and Members of the Super Committee should be wary of taking the bait.

With the bipartisan Super Committee set to cut at least $1.2 trillion from the federal debt next month, Big Ag and their supporters in Congress are scrambling to protect their slice of the pie. The Republican and Democratic leadership of the House and Senate Agriculture Committees intend to put forward what amounts to a new five-year Farm Bill proposal by November 1, building off their recommended $23 billion in “cuts” to Ag programs.

On the face of it, $23 billion in cuts and an end to wasteful direct payments should bring cheers from reformers. But this attempt to circumvent democracy and cut a back room deal that protects the interests of Big Ag above voters is a wolf in sheep’s clothing.

(For more on the substance of the proposals so far, see my colleague Jim French’s take here.)

As Senator Chuck Grassley (R-IA) told reporters last week, Congressional Ag leaders, traditionally those with the closest ties to the industry, want to avoid taking their proposals to the floor of the House and Senate where support for reform is strong.

Already, the Obama administration has proposed even deeper cuts to Ag programs amounting to at least $33 billion. And just this month, the Big Ag lobby was rocked on its heels when an amendment offered by Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) to cut farm subsidies to anyone with an average income over $1 million cleared the Senate by an eye-popping margin of 84-15. Clearly the momentum is not in Big Ag’s favor.

The deliberation and discussion by Agriculture Committee Chairs and Ranking Members that has led to the current proposal has neither been shared publicly nor opened to the scrutiny of Members of Congress who represent individuals, families and businesses affected by Farm Bill programs. If the Ag Committees would have their way, the next Farm Bill will effectively be authorized with no floor debate at all. Members of the Super Committee should be wary of taking the bait.

The entire political calculus of the Ag Committee leaders is based on the reality that their plan does not have adequate support outside of their own committee to pass on the floor. If the Super Committee’s goal is to craft a proposal that deals with the debt and can garner enough votes on the floor to pass, this is one surefire way to cut a deal that is less popular, has less impact on the debt, and less likely to garner votes.

Already, Members of Congress are catching on and fighting back. Representative Ron Kind is circulating a “Dear Colleague” letter to Congressional colleagues, which already has support from several Democrats and Republicans, asking the Super Committee not to approve any Agriculture Committee proposal that hasn’t been voted on by Congress. Rep. Kind’s message should garner broad support across party lines as this is a rare issue that should appeal to Democrats, Republicans, Tea Partiers, and Occupiers alike.

Let’s break this down a bit. If you’re a Tea Party supporter, you probably shouldn’t like this deal because:

1. It is a back room deal negotiated without any public scrutiny.
2. It cuts less wasteful spending than other proposals.
3. The $23 billion in proposed cuts could shrink dramatically if the volatile agriculture markets or increasingly volatile weather swings production or prices in a new direction.
4. It authorizes the government to pick certain industries/commodities as winners over others.

If you’re an #OWS supporter, you shouldn’t like this deal because:
1. It was negotiated to satisfy high powered industry lobbies that pay lots of money to influence the Ag Committee.
2. It’s a giveaway to big industrial farms at the expense of family farmers.
3. It promotes unhealthy, unsustainable farming practices at the expense of sustainable farming.
4. It targets conservation and nutrition programs for cuts disproportionately.

Clearly there are many reasons not to like this deal. Members of the Super Committee should swiftly reject it. For more on what’s wrong with the substance, read Jim French’s piece here.

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