Leadership vs. Statesmanship

By Mark Edelman and Barry Flinchbaugh

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ME. Professor, I remember the primers on Ag policy and democracy highlighting 3 types of control in the legislative process: funding, content, and leadership. Budget and Appropriations Committees have funding jurisdiction over the public purse. The Ag Committees are the authorizing committees that have jurisdiction and oversight over legislative content and program implementation. Leadership has control over who sits on each committee, what jurisdiction each committee has, which bills are considered for debate, the rules of debate, and when and whether they are debated. In a nutshell, with the failure of Congress to pass a farm bill prior to the August recess, it appears that it is the Congressional leadership that has failed Agriculture.

BF. Exactly. There is a reason that Congress only has a single digit confidence reading in the national opinion polls. The Senate and Senate Committee passed a bi-partisan bill. The House Ag Committee passed a bi-partisan bill. The House Leadership punted. The drought conditions have been worsening. Similarly it appears dysfunction in House leadership is worsening as well. The ill-fated attempts to first consider a one year extension of existing policy with direct payments coupled with selective reductions to address the expired disaster relief for livestock programs fell with a thud. And, the last ditch attempt to simply approve the expired disaster relief for livestock passed the House, but the Senate adjourned and went home without giving it any consideration. Leadership walked away from agriculture during the worst drought in recent memory.

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ME. There was a lot of action to create inaction and posturing for the fall elections. It reminds me of a school bus about to drive over a cliff because the bus driver is having a heart attack and the two adults in the front seat are arguing over who ought to take the wheel, who ought to help the driver, and whether they ought to shut off the engine or stomp on the brake. Worse yet, appearing to be the savior is apparently more important than saving the driver, the kids, or themselves.

BF. Your analogy makes a point, but it oversimplifies the gravity of the consequences of the dysfunction in Congress. The prospects in the global economy are creating a lot of uncertainty. The prospects in the domestic economy are creating a lot of uncertainty. The drought is creating a lot of uncertainty for agriculture. Congress had an opportunity to reduce the uncertainty by passing a five year farm bill, but instead House leadership decided to add to the uncertainty when they should have ignored the "wing-nuts." Everyone connected to agriculture and the food system should be mad as hell. The message to all members of Congress during the August recess should be loud and clear. Don't come home again until a farm bill is passed.

ME. Part of the dysfunction is not just in Congress. There are some apparent fissures in the Ag coalition. The livestock industries apparently slipped up and didn't get their disaster aid authorizations in sync with the other disaster programs during the 2008 Farm Bill debate. Now they are in a world of hurt with the drought and they decide to gore the ox from another agriculture interest by asking EPA to waive the Renewable Fuels Standard in an attempt to lower their feed prices. At the same time, some biofuel plants are being shut down due to negative margins and voluntary production reductions are being implemented by others. Emergency haying and grazing on Conservation Reserve Program acres and highway right of ways are a help, but herds will still be thinned. So meat prices will likely rise during the next few years further eroding per capita meat consumption, unless we import more and export less. Unfortunately that is just fine with those who advocate for vegan diets with less meat consumption to reduce obesity.

BF. I talked to the cattle interests recently and they understand that agriculture is not being listened to in Washington as it once was. In fact, one of the questions received from the audience was who does a certain Congressman listen too? Surmising from the response, it was reportedly "the almighty." However, the campaign disclosure reports suggest otherwise. Agriculture used to receive media attention for being one of the larger interests involved in supporting Congressional elections on a bi-partisan basis. However agriculture's voice may have been relatively reduced by recent Supreme Court decisions that struck down and removed the prohibition against corporate contributions to political campaigns.

ME. I remember a book I read a few years ago about, "What in the World is Wrong with Kansas ?"   While I am not sure I agreed with everything in the book, the factoid that stuck with me all these years was that 80 percent or more of the political contributions originated from one or two counties. If one super-imposes that conceptual distribution on today's political dysfunction, the root causes of current events may become clearer. I visited the economic and social chaos in the former Soviet Union shortly after dissolution in the late 1980s. That vision is perhaps one of the potential paths for the United States if we are not careful in maintaining our democracy and keeping our economic house in order. What would happen if we allow our democracy to become overrun by misguided wealthy elitists and their corporate thugs trying to impose their favorite philosophies on the rest of us? In the past, big business kept a non-partisan public image and corporations did business with all customers regardless of political philosophy. The future becomes really scary when rumors that bodies lay at the bottom of the river for those who dare cross the lead "wing-nuts."

BF. Don't believe everything you hear. But the key difference between the path forward toward economic disaster for the nation and the world and the path forward to global recovery and economic growth can be summed up in two words: statesmanship and compromise. Statesmanship is shown by leaders who work together across party lines toward compromise for the sake of the nation, regardless of politics. That is what statesmanship is all about. We have seen damn few leaders as statesmen lately.

* Edelman is professor of economics at Iowa State University and Flinchbaugh is emeritus professor of agricultural economics at Kansas State University .

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