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Weeding the Farm Bill

We all have our hobby horses, and as many of you know by now, one of mine is that process affects product: How you set up your decision-making processes, rules and regs, publicity channels and feedback mechanism all make a major difference in what you end up with.

The weird Twilight Zone moment of last week over the farm bill is a good example of some of the strange results of how we make legislation on a national level. I am referring to the bit where the resident of the White House, whose gall in blatantly supporting corporate and wealthy interests over those of regular citizens has seemed to know no limits, vetoed the farm bill because it gave too much money to the rich. He said the income caps for farm subsidies should be lower. And he was, uh, right.

Even weirder, this was the time that Congress managed to stand up to him and muster enough votes for an override.
Now I don’t believe for an instant that Bush was really trying to take a principled stand in favor of progressive distribution of wealth, especially since earlier on in the process his administration insisted on leaving intact the most indefensible, and regressive, of the subsidies in there: the automatic payments that go out to growers of commodity crops (just a handful, including corn, wheat, soybeans, cotton) even in boom years like this one. Clearly he’s trying to do a little last-minute image burnishing for fiscal conservatives and WTO members.

And there is plenty of good in the farm bill, such as increased research on organic farming, and improving conservation programs. Oh, and more than half of the money in the bill is actually for food stamps and similar crucial nutrition programs. That explains a lot.

A whole lot of progressives and urban legislators decided not to wade into the complex fight over the unfair and ecologically unsound subsidies supported by the very strong (big) farm lobby because there was too much to lose elsewhere in the bill.

They even happily engaged in some comfortable Bush-bashing over his veto of a bill with increased food stamp allocations in it.

But the fact is that organizations that care about and are fighting for things like sustainable communities, family farms, fighting hunger globally, and environmental protection all think the (agriculture part of) the farm bill is atrocious. (I recommend checking out Food First or the National Family Farm Coalition if you want more details).

It’s a weird pickle to be in: Take on the bigger, harder fight for a more sustainable, fairer system, or line up with short-term gains and familiar political allies?
Blame our Founding Fathers.

It feels almost dangerous to criticize the Constitution when we have to spend so much of our time defending its important bits (i.e., the Bill of Rights) from constant assault, and when most people trying to amend it are trying to do so to write religious discrimination into it. Defending the Constitution is important. But that doesn’t mean the governmental system it has given us is perfect. Compared to European parliamentary democracies, the long, drawn-out U.S. legislative procedure of going through committees, two houses, a conference committee and an executive sign-off with veto override possibilities makes it really hard to make any large-scale changes, especially not any that are opposed by powerful interests. (Winner-take-all voting doesn’t help either. See for alternatives.)
As professor Edward Royce points out in his excellent forthcoming book, Poverty and Power, there are too many places in the process for moneyed special interests to water-down or stymie reforms they dislike. “In the American political system, it is easier to stop something from happening than to make something happen,” he writes. “Fundamental reforms are difficult to achieve not only because organized interest groups possess veto power, but also because policy making is so much a product of compromise, concession, and accommodation. When lawmakers are not simply kowtowing to the interests of business, legislative procedures funnel policy formation toward the moderate middle.”

This was, of course, done on purpose, and it has a sort of appeal in terms of ensuring political stability and not letting someone with a bee in their bonnet do something drastic. I’m actually fairly fond of incremental change myself. But to have hamstrung yourself so badly that you can’t make a decisive response to a clear and present problem like climate change or an unsustainable world food system, and to be so immobilized that you can’t make a decision about an issue on its merits without by buying votes using stitched-together unrelated amendments, is taking the instability worry too far. (Especially since someones with the right kind of power still manage to follow the bees in their bonnets.)

Ironically, it is precisely this kind of difficulty in making change using our government that makes it feel ridiculously optimistic to be talking about changing the government. Still, I grow ever more convinced that if we want to see the day where we can have real debate about how to support farmers and a sustainable agricultural sector without holding food for the poor hostage, for example, it’s these questions of how we decide that we need to start with.

—Miriam Axel-Lute

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