The Farm Bill Deserved to Fail

Over the years, Farm Bill reauthorizations have systematically taken much of the risk out of farming, with large agribusiness not so much farming the land as farming the federal taxpayer.
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The past 24 hours have been a surreal exercise in Farm Bill politics.

I'd like to think I knew a bit about the subject after spending the last 17 years in Congress working towards reform. When I arrived in Washington in 1996, I was introduced to many of the agricultural issues and politics surrounding the Farm Bill -- and was instantly appalled that so much attention and resources were lavished on such a small spectrum of people involved (at least tangentially) in agriculture.

As I learned more, I became disturbed and outraged that Farm Bill policies were taking taxpayers for a ride while dramatically shortchanging a majority of farmers and ranchers and undercutting critical environmental protections. You see, over the years, Farm Bill reauthorizations have systematically taken much of the risk out of farming, with large agribusiness not so much farming the land as farming the federal taxpayer.

A good example of this can be found in our bloated, inefficient crop insurance program that actually pays more to people who administer it than what goes back to farmers and ranchers. This policy provides perverse financial incentives to plant crops that are almost certain to fail because profit is virtually guaranteed.

Another area of exploitation is the Farm Bill's well-intentioned conservation programs. While most family farmers support conservation efforts that maintain our land and water stewardship, a majority of applications are rejected because these very programs are underfunded -- with a substantial portion of their resources siphoned off to huge agribusiness projects. Less than 100 grants each year take about 20 percent of valuable Environmental Quality Incentives Program funding, while the typical family farmer's project would be funded at an average of just $13,500.

Many of these programs are intentionally designed by members on the Agriculture Committee to direct an overwhelming amount of their benefits to just a handful of Congressional Districts. Complexity, lobbying, and campaign contributions thwart efforts at reform and give insiders high financial payoffs. Those who care about nutrition, cutting waste, and environmental stewardship have never had a strong enough coalition to overcome these special interests.

On the bright side, a few modest improvements were slipped into the Farm Bill this time around. Support for sustainable agriculture, research, and small fruit and vegetable programs were accepted -- though largely as an afterthought. I was even able to share a bipartisan victory with my colleagues Jared Polis of Colorado and Thomas Massie of Kentucky on an amendment that would allow research on hemp at agricultural colleges and universities. This little ray of sunshine carries significance far beyond opening up a productive channel of research; it signals a different mindset that this Congress may well go beyond simply allowing research into industrial hemp. The stage is set now to actually end this unnecessary prohibition and allow cultivation across America.

The passage of my hemp amendment is indicative of something a bit different about this year's Farm Bill. Decades of bad policy have led to far more conversation and coordination among reformers than in the past. In fact, all amendments I've worked on were bipartisan: strengthening conservation, sugar reform, reducing big agribusiness crop insurance payouts, and modifying wasteful cotton policies.

And this, in the end, is what led to the bill's failure. By rejecting reforms and doubling down on mean-spirited cuts in nutrition and the SNAP program, a critical mass of people across the political spectrum couldn't stomach this bill. The result was a strong 'no' vote, leadership looking embarrassed, and the House in disarray.

It will be fascinating to see what next week holds.

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