Politics of Poverty

The Farm Bill–eyes open

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Will budget troubles in Washington change the political calculus of the Farm Bill?

I’ve been thinking about the Farm Bill recently. The legislation will expire in 2012, so Congress will probably try to pass a new bill next year. So, this is a good time to start thinking about it.

I like this idea of turning the Farm Bill into a Healthy Food Bill. Also, here, and here.

If I close my eyes, I can imagine something beautiful and important; something that would encourage kids to eat healthy; that would support small diversified farms and rural communities in this country, and that wouldn’t hurt people in developing countries.

But it’s safer to approach the Farm Bill with your eyes open.

Whatever else the Farm Bill is about–or could be about–it’s certainly about money. Taxpayer dollars. And the legislative debate, at its heart, is usually about the pie: how big is it and how does it get sliced up?

If you want a seat at the table in the Farm Bill, you need a wedge of that pie.

US Department of Agriculture
US Department of Agriculture

For the last Farm Bill, Oxfam joined a coalition that wasn’t about growing a wedge of the pie (a preoccupation for most of the interests who engage in lobbying of the farm bill). Our interest was actually about shrinking the “commodities” wedge. If you want more background, see here, and here, and here.

We didn’t really succeed in our goal. Or maybe we did. Because the “commodities” wedge of Farm Bill has been shrinking for decades and this shrinkage continues today (as a proportion of the Farm Bill). For a historical perspective see the graph below.

The large bulk of the Farm Bill is actually “nutrition” programs, i.e. food stamps. This wedge has grown and grown over the years. Recent growth has been driven by the sad reality that a lot more people need food assistance in this country due to high food prices and the poor economy. These days, everything else is small by comparison.

Farm Bill Spending

In Farm Bill politics, the commodities interests are in the driver’s seat. If you look at the House and Senate Agriculture Committees (which write the Farm Bill), there’s distinctly an agricultural profile. But the commodities interests have been under pressure to give more and more of the pie to conservation and food stamps. This is how they build the votes necessary to pass a Farm Bill and keep the commodities programs running.

But the current budget crisis may change the political calculus. The pie is shrinking fast and by the time Congress takes up the Farm Bill next year, tens of billions of dollars may be cut out of the pie to reduce the deficit. So will those cuts be spread evenly across the wedges? Will the pro-Farm Bill interests start trying to eat each other’s slice? Is this a moment when a more rational, transformative vision can take hold and win the day?

If I close my eyes….

For more, see:

Eight budget cuts that would help poor people

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