Food Politics: Invited to Testify
Lauren Appelwick, Publicity
Robert Paarlberg, author of Food Politics: What Everyone Needs to Know, is a leading authority on food policy, and one of the most prominent scholars writing on agricultural issues today. He is B.F. Johnson Professor of Political Science at Wellesley College and Associate at the Weatherhead Center for International Affairs, Harvard University. Soon after his “Attention Whole Foods Shoppers” article in the May/June 2010 issue of Foreign Policy, Paarlberg was asked to testify in front of the House Committee on Agriculture. Below, he shares his thoughts on this invitation. Read an excerpt from his book here.
When you write a book, you never quite know who will get in touch. In the case of my Oxford book published last month titled, Food Politics: What Everyone Needs to Know, the last thing I expected was an invitation to speak about the book from the Agriculture Committee of the U.S. House of Representatives. Having accepted this invitation, I am now scheduled to testify on Thursday, May 13.
The invitation surprised me because my book gives both the House and Senate Agriculture Committees fairly harsh treatment. I described, for example, how these committees log-rolled together the expensive package of subsidies that became the 2008 Farm Bill. President Bush actually vetoed the bill, calling it “wasteful,” but it was passed over his veto by wide margins of 3 to 1 in the House and 6 to 1 in the Senate. Here is one passage from my book that describes the Agriculture Committee role:
The secret to every farm bill’s success in Congress is the lead role played by the House and Senate Agriculture Committees, where members from farm states and farm districts enjoy a dominant presence and are rewarded for their legislative efforts with generous campaign contributions from the “farm lobby,” which is built around organizations representing the farmers who get the subsidies. The agriculture committees draft the legislation that goes to the floor for a final vote, and in the drafting process they take care to satisfy the minimum needs of both Republican and Democratic members, to ensure bipartisan support. For example, the farm bill enacted in 2002 emerged from the House Agriculture Committee without a single dissenting vote. The drafters also give generous treatment both to northern crops and southern crops, and they take care to attach generous funding for domestic food and nutrition programs (like Food Stamps) to lock in support from urban district members. Then they add some measures to please environmentalists, such as a “Conservation Reserve” program that pays farmers to leave their land (temporarily) idle. The final package is what students of legislative politics call a “committee-based logroll.”
When the farm bill leaves the committees and reaches the floor, another classic legislative mechanism pushes it toward enactment: vote trading. Farm district members implicitly or explicitly promise support on multiple measures of future interest to urban and suburban members, in return for their single “aye” vote on the farm bill once every five years. These trades always bring in enough non-farm support to insure a majority. . . . . [Consider] the astonishing outcome of the 2008 farm bill debate, which took place at a time when America’s farmers were enjoying unprecedented prosperity thanks to the highest market prices for farm commodities seen in more than three decades. Net farm income in 2008 reached $89 billion, 40 percent above the average of the previous ten years. Yet without any sense of irony or shame, the farm lobby asserted that America’s farmers were facing “emergencies” of various kinds and needed new “safety nets” for protection. The new measure pushed through was an Average Crop Revenue Election (ACRE) program that cleverly used the high income levels of 2008 as a baseline from which farmers would be able to make claims for added compensation in the event prices subsequently fell, which of course they soon did. The 2008 bill also included new funding for nutrition programs, research on organic agriculture and specialty crops, conservation measures, and block grants to promote horticultural products. There was something for everybody, making passage over the president’s veto a certainty.
So, having called the House Agriculture Committee members log-rollers, I am now being called out to offer an opinion on how the next farm bill should be written, in 2012. I’m impressed by the Committee’s hospitality toward its critics. When Oxford learned about my Kamikaze mission, they asked if I would post this preview, and then check in after the hearing on the 13th to share my thoughts. I will.