Politics of Poverty

House of Representatives rejects food aid reform in the Farm Bill

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We lost. But what have we gained?

“First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win.” ~Gandhi

Well, we lost.  Let’s not pretend otherwise.  Boo hoo.

Tonight, the House of Representatives rejected an amendment to the Farm Bill meant to reform the US food aid program, introduced by Chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Ed Royce (R-CA), and the Ranking Democrat, Elliott Engel (D-NY).  It was a good amendment and we supported it.  We worked hard to support it and mobilized as quickly and aggressively as we could.  But we couldn’t overcome the political inertia and the special interests that were lined up against us.

It will take a few days to digest what happened. The Farm Bill is not done, so there’s still room to maneuver, although it’s a very steep climb.

But before signing off for the moment, I want to note a few big accomplishments:

US food aid waiting to be distributed in a village in the Mchinji district of Malawi in 2005. Photo: Jennifer Lentfer
Proposed reforms will help get food aid to hungry people faster, cheaper, and more efficiently without sacrificing the important benefits US aid provides to people in need. Pictured is bags of corn-soya blend waiting to be distributed in the Mchinji district of Malawi in 2005. Photo courtesy of Jennifer Lentfer. Learn more: oxfamamerica.org/foodaid

1. We got a vote.  Just getting a vote is an accomplishment.  Last Farm Bill debate in 2008, Rep. Earl Blumenauer heroically tried to force a vote on food aid reform, but was quashed by an overbearing Rules Committee, which wouldn’t permit him to offer the amendment.  So, that’s progress!

2. We have Members of Congress on record.  A recorded vote is a critical tool for accountability and transparency.  When Members of Congress vote, they put themselves on record “for” or “against.”  Voters can – and should – review how their representatives vote to see if they do what they say.  And to see if they agree.  Now we know.

3. We set a baseline. We got 203 Representatives to say YES to reforming food aid – split between Republicans and Democrats.  We had seven Representatives speak in favor during debate.  We know who our friends are.  We know who we need to convince for next time.

4. We built a campaign, forged cross-party, cross-committee and cross-agency political alliances, learned more about the new allies and special interest adversaries.  This shifted the debate.  We have a lot of “thank you”s to write to our activists, supporters, and allies old and new.  The social infrastructure we’ve built is now an advocacy asset.  It might erode and become dilapidated.  Or we can maintain it carefully, so it’s ready next time we get a chance to fight for a better, more efficient, faster, and more effective food aid program.

I’ve been an advocate for a long time.  I’ve seen how long it can take for change to happen.  I’ve also seen that change can seem to be lightning quick.  But it rarely is in reality.  More usually, what seems like quick action is actually the result of quiet, steady, hard work to shift the balance from “unlikely” to “inevitable.”  We have a political system that is designed to be difficult, to value checks and balances, to promote evolution rather than revolution.

We’ll lick our wounds.  We’ll thank our friends.  There are multiple avenues ahead of us to achieve reform.  We’ll review our work, evaluate our strategy, brainstorm, make adjustments.

And then we’ll get back to work.

“It always seems impossible until it’s done.” ~Nelson Mandela

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