the Farm Bill
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.
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.
this was the time that Congress managed to stand up to him
and muster enough votes for an override.
Now I dont 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 hes trying
to do a little last-minute image burnishing for fiscal conservatives
and WTO members.
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
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.
happily engaged in some comfortable Bush-bashing over his
veto of a bill with increased food stamp allocations in it.
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).
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.
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 doesnt 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 doesnt help either. See Fairvote.org 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.
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. Im
actually fairly fond of incremental change myself. But to
have hamstrung yourself so badly that you cant 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 cant 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.)
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, its these questions of how we decide that
we need to start with.