A few weeks ago Vice President Biden presented the George McGovern Award to Bob Dole for his effort in the fight against global hunger.  The ceremony was sponsored by the World Food Program and held in the Senate Caucus Room. It was a wonderful and too rare evening in Washington.  After the presentation, the name of the award was changed to the McGovern-Dole Anti-hunger Award. 

Beyond the well-deserved tribute to Senator Dole and his comments about George McGovern’s leadership, Dole hit on a larger theme of the evening when he said: “Aren’t these bipartisan meetings great? Too bad we can’t have more of them.”  Watching the Farm Bill saga over the past two years, Dole’s comments struck a nerve with the audience. 

The Secretary has warned us that agriculture must stay relevant to mainstream America or risk losing its political gravitas.  The threat has taken a new form this year, the real possibility of losing the Farm Bill– not just the 2013/2014 version, but the entire process.  This is despite the great efforts of Senate Committee Chairwoman Stabenow and House Committee Chairman Lucas to move the bill on behalf of an entire nation that benefits from it.

USDA and the entire agriculture community rely on Farm Bills as the central pillar of political activity.  Farm Bills give importance to the House and Senate Agriculture Committees, a leading policy role to USDA, and a regular platform for farm, food, nutrition, rural, and related interests to address concerns.  Now, the “new normal” of Washington gridlock threatens to make all of this extinct.

The House and Senate Agriculture Committees have worked heroically against enormous political headwinds to move legislation.  Twice the Senate has passed a bipartisan Farm Bill, in 2012 and again in 2013.  The House has had tougher sledding.  While the House Agriculture Committee reported a bipartisan Farm Bill last spring, the full House voted down the Committee’s package on June 20 by a margin of 195 - 234.  Simply to reach a conference with the Senate, the House was forced to adopt two separate sub-packages by narrow party votes, one on agriculture and the other on nutrition, and cobble them back together later.

Farm Bills have always been a hard sell on Capitol Hill, demanding great skill by our House and Senate Agriculture Committee leaders to build coalitions -- farm and nutrition, food safety and trade, conservation and forestry, row crops and specialty, north and south, budget hawks and anti-hunger advocates.   A sense of unity among agricultural interests and Farm state representatives, paired with public respect for agriculture’s central role in the national well-being, always seemed to carry the day in a crisis, overriding internal divisions and external threats.  When push comes to shove, Farm Bills always reached the finish line because of the marriage between nutrition and agriculture.

Now, the agriculture consensus seems in danger of breaking down.  Imagine for a minute if Congress were not to pass a Farm Bill in 2014.  Would this become the new normal?  Could annual “temporary extensions” become the new platform for setting rural policy rather than five-year Farm Bills, much as Continuing Resolutions have become the new way of funding the Federal government rather than individual annual Appropriations Bills? 

The implications for American agriculture are sobering.  If House and Senate Agriculture Committees can no longer pass Farm Bills that are acceptable to the full House and Senate – their core legislative mission – how long would it be before members started avoiding those Committees?  Would food safety, nutrition, trade, and other interests start taking their business to other Capitol Hill offices?  The decision by the House last summer to spin off nutrition from the normal Farm Bill package seemed to point in this ominous direction. Now, at least one Member of the House has already announced he will not support the Conference Report because it puts SNAP back in the bill. 

And if the Agriculture Committees themselves were allowed to evolve into narrow-based forums for farmers and a few related rural interests, how long before they faded into Subcommittees?  Remember when the Post Office was a major Department of Government and all new Members of Congress wanted to serve on the Post Office Committee? 

What to do? 

First, immediately, we as a farm community must pull together and help our Congressional leaders and the Administration get the Farm Bill over the finish line.  Let’s settle our differences and move forward.  The credibility of American agriculture as a Washington presence depends on it.  We cannot afford to let the “new normal” become a reality.  Make sure your Congressmen and Senators know that it is important that this bill becomes law, and that you, as their constituent, will be watching how they vote.

Second, longer term, we must broaden our tent.  Farmers alongside farm groups must speak up for themselves on issues that affect them; silence at home will only result in silence on Capitol Hill.  But also, rural America must quickly learn how to speak to urban America and build coalitions across the spectrum.  Food producers must make the case to food consumers that they are in this together, that both have an interest in the farm bill if they want to keep food costs low. Agriculture is not staying in touch with its customer and that is dangerous. 

It is also time to change the name of the Department of Agriculture to the Department of Food and Agriculture.  Symbols are important.  The Senate Agriculture Committee added “Nutrition” to its name in 1977 at the urging of Senators McGovern and Dole.  If the name were changed consumers would feel more a part of the Department, the Secretary would have more power at the Cabinet Table and perhaps the Congress would understand why farm programs and nutrition programs belong in the same legislation.  

Charles Lane of the Washington Post asks the question “Do we even need a farm bill?” and, by implication, do we need USDA?  The answer is yes, but we are not telling our story. We need a farm bill and USDA because it covers a lot more than just farm production and price stabilization…as important as that is to farmers and all Americans.  The farm bill and USDA---

•           Protects the safety of food for all consumers;

•           Provides food assistance to children and low income Americans;

•           Stimulates rural development;

•           Promotes agriculture trade;

•           Manages our national forests;

•           Protects us from foreign pests and disease at every airport and port; and

•           Conducts critical research on global food security and climate.

The Secretary is fond of saying USDA touches every American every day.   One percent (1%) of the population farms; one hundred percent (100%) consume.  It is not very complicated. 


Marshall Matz, formerly Counsel to the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry, specializes in food and agriculture at OFW Law in Washington, D.C.  mmatz@ofwlaw.com