The recent – and quite justified – revelry over U.S. House Democrats’ success at completing their yearlong drive toward health care reform masks a more fundamental truth: today’s Congress, ostensibly a legislative body, is almost completely unable to enact legislation. Health care reform – the most substantive work of domestic policy to leave Washington since the 1960s, for what that’s worth – is the exception that proves the rule, a relatively bold but unquestionably watered-down and politically battered work of compromise that treats health insurers, among the most obvious villains in the American public drama, with kid gloves. Other legislative priorities in recent decades have, without fail, confined their ambitions either to deregulation or to marginal, incrementalist change. We shouldn’t be surprised at this: caught between the rock of a shallow, easily manipulated public discourse, and the hard place of well-heeled business interests happily wielding their wildly outsized influence, congressional representatives’ incentive structure tilts strongly toward maintaining the status quo. And in no area of domestic policy is this dysfunction more clear than agriculture.
On one hand, American farmers are routinely thrown around – by Republicans and Democrats – as a political football. Allusions to the romance of the vanishing family farm are a guaranteed vote-getter, especially for the presidential candidates doomed to spend upwards of eight months stumping around corn-filled Iowa. (Analysts regularly concede that Iowa’s predominance in the nomination process is almost entirely responsible for the enormous subsidies Washington lavishes on the ethanol industry.) Republican arguments for repeal of the estate tax – or “death tax,” in their preferred terminology – usually revolve around the specter of inherited family farms being taxed out of existence (which, as it happens, is a nearly complete fiction). By all appearances, family farmers ought to enjoy a privileged place in American policymaking – plenty of observers, including the creators of the abysmal 2003 Chris Rock vehicle “Head of State,” point to the apparent chokehold of Big Agriculture over the legislature as a case study in American’s broken political system.
But appearances can be deceiving. Real-life agricultural policy, behind Congress’ closed doors, is hardly accountable to the needs of farmers – or, well, anyone. In the 1990s, when the business-oriented Republican Party controlled the Capitol, deregulation sent commodity prices – and consequently family farms – into freefall. Congress’ attempts to solve the problem, which in the usual way amounted to huge, indiscriminate subsidies, naturally went almost entirely into the pockets of big corporations – which was hardly a problem for Republican lawmakers, lavished as they were with colossal amounts of money from the titans of agribusiness. When Democrats took over Congress in the tsunami of 2006, farmers had no reason to be more optimistic; the urban-oriented Democratic Party has few strongholds in rural America and even less interest in rural issues, a dichotomy that crestfallen Republicans used to their advantage in trying to cling to agricultural donations and votes. Today, the Democratic Congress and President Obama’s USDA gladly ignore the concerns of farm lobbyists and their Republican allies; actual family farmers, absent political leverage, are twisting in the wind. Irrespective of any observer’s level of sympathy for the agriculture industry – which can be, variously, the heart of American business, a doomed economic anachronism, or a nefarious shadow-force fueling the obesity epidemic – it’s hard to imagine that a Congress like today’s could ever make substantive agricultural policy.
Worse, American farmers can’t expect their political fortunes to change anytime soon. For better or worse, the perception exists that their influence in Washington overstates their worth; and even if Republicans make a return to power in 2010 and 2012, the fact is that the political importance of rural votes is shrinking by the day. Absent a sudden uprising of altruism in Congress – for which no sane person will hold their breath – agriculture will have to find its own way without significant backing from Washington, D.C.
This segment was written by guest blogger Markus Kolic. Having grown up in rural Ontario, Markus understands the importance agriculture plays in both society and politics. As a recent graduate of Harvard University, Markus has opted to stay in the Boston area where he now lives with his fiance Kelsey and works as an internet content professional for Energy Inside.