Another hidden supercommittee menace

The "secret farm bill" could overhaul U.S. agriculture for the next five years with no public debate

Topics: Jeb Hensarling, Agriculture, Supercommittee, ,

Another hidden supercommittee menace Rep. Collin Peterson, ranking Democrat on the House Agriculture Committee (Credit: Reuters)

The congressional deficit supercommittee is pulling into the home stretch. Whether the secret, round-the-clock negotiations among its 12 members will yield a budget-cutting deal before its Thanksgiving deadline is the subject of intense speculation in Washington.

Republican co-chair Jeb Hensarling indicated on MSNBC on Tuesday night that the Republicans have gone as far as they are willing to go when it comes to compromise. House Democratic Whip Steny Hoyer, D-Md., Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., and others held a press conference this morning urging the supercommittee to “go big” on an agreement over deficit reduction. The White House, in the meantime, is bracing for failure, according to the Washington Post.

This speculation changes daily, making it hard to tell how things will unfold over the next week. But what if the supercommittee does succeed in “going big”? What would that deal look like? Yes, a deficit agreement could result in changes to programs like Social Security and Medicaid. What has been less noticed is that a supercommittee deal could — and likely would– end up rewriting other policies in ways that are entirely unexpected.

Enter the so-called secret farm bill, an oddball piece of deficit reduction legislation that could rewrite agriculture policy in the United States in one behind-closed-doors deal.

“There’s no question that the farm bill is what agriculture wants to do,” said a budget expert who works closely with farm states. Essentially, the farm bill could become a part of deficit reduction because the House and Senate Agriculture Committees are trying to take advantage of the way the supercommittee’s process was set up. Congressional committees can submit recommendations to the supercommittee on ways they would like to see spending cut in their programs.

The House and Senate Agriculture Committees, led by agriculture’s “Big Four,” Sens. Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., and Pat Roberts, R-Kan., and Reps. Frank Lucas, R-Okla., and Collin Peterson, D-Minn., appear poised to try to submit their suggestion in the form of the farm bill.



The farm bill, approved every five years by Congress, has more to do with your life than you might think. This legislation sets most food and agriculture policies in the United States, from food stamps to food safety measures and crop subsidies. If the Big Four submit a bill that spends less money than the old farm bill did, it could be passable as deficit reduction and potentially get swept through Congress on the coattails of a deficit reduction plan. Though it’s impossible to tell exactly what such a plan would look like, it’s logical that states the Big Four represent — Michigan, Kansas, Oklahoma, Minnesota — and other farm states would be well-represented.

But if the secret farm bill become law, some people will go ballistic. Anti-obesity advocates, food safety watchdogs, and food policy advocates have been waiting for Congress to write the next farm bill, which is a rare opportunity for them to plug new policies, such as targeting food stamps so they encourage low-income families to buy healthy foods. But if the new farm bill is written and debated behind closed doors, as is happening right now, they will have to wait another five years for that opportunity.

“A farm bill that preserves the status quo instead of addressing a food system that causes disease and wrecks the environment isn’t even marginally serious about deficit reduction,” wrote food writer and activist Mark Bittman in an Op-Ed for the New York Times last week.

It sounds batty, but slipping relatively small pieces of legislation into large, high-stakes bills is a proven way to get a bill passed. The health care reform bill that passed last spring, for example, included a major rewrite of a 40-year-old student loan program that was similarly folded into health reform at the last minute. It was the biggest piece of education-related legislation to get passed Congress in years and it was barely reviewed.

Corn states vs. rice states

The Big Four stand to gain two things by slipping their farm bill into a deficit agreement:

First, they avoid a scenario where the supercommittee simply caps the amount of money budgeted for agriculture in coming years, giving the agriculture committees less autonomy in their decision-making.

Second, if they reauthorize the farm bill now they can avoid what would likely be a messy, public battle over food policy and agriculture reform slated to take place next summer, in the middle of an election cycle.

Insiders and advocates say the possibility of the secret farm bill becoming the law of the land depends on a number of things happening in the coming weeks.

First, the Big Four need to come to an agreement and actually submit a plan that saves the $23 billion to $25 billion over 10 years, as the supercommittee has asked it to do. There are three areas where the agriculture budget could get slashed: nutrition programs such as food stamps, conservation programs that help preserve land and prevent pollution, and crop subsidies.

It’s likely that around half of the cuts, ranging from $13 billion to $15 billion over 10 years, would come from dropping crop subsidies and replacing them with an expanded crop insurance program that would enable farmers to collect a larger share of their losses from insurance during years with poor profits.

Currently, internal divisions are preventing the committees from agreeing among themselves, says a source who works on Capitol Hill. The division line within the Big Four and other congressmen who are trying to lobby them currently falls mostly between corn states, such as Minnesota, and rice states, such as Arkansas.

Collin Peterson of Minnesota, for example, is a strong supporter of the new insurance plan. Corn is somewhat volatile and corn farmers would gain from having expanded insurance. Rice, on the other hand, is a less volatile crop and thus benefits more from straight cash subsidies, making it likely that congressmen from rice-producing states are opposing the new insurance deal.  Sen. John Boozman, R-Ark., for example, recently emphasized the importance of keeping the “farm safety net” (subsidies and insurance) intact in a deficit deal and played down the need for crop insurance in his state when speaking to the Arkansas News. Unsurprisingly, Arkansas grows almost half of the U.S. supply of rice.

That’s the debate within farm states. The interests of those not representing farmers, such as people concerned about reducing agriculture pollution or reforming the food stamps program so it encourages families to buy healthier food, don’t figure into this equation, and are likely to be overlooked by the secret farm bill.

Food stamps would also likely see a small cut, because the the program is popular but constitutes an estimated two-thirds of the costs of the current farm bill, making it hard for the Big Four to plot out a way to reduce spending without at least a minor reduction in spending on food stamps.

The Big Four will likely try to sell the new insurance program as having big cost savings though it might not, in fact, save money. During years with good crop prices and yield, offering government-subsidized insurance to farmers is relatively inexpensive. But during years when crop prices and/or yields fall, the government will dole out more money to farmers who have experienced losses, resulting in much less savings.

There’s a good chance the supercommittee won’t fall for agriculture’s bait-and-switch with regard to crop subsidies. But the committee could make a deal that hits its deficit reduction mark and looks good on paper while ignoring the variations in actual agriculture savings. An expanded crop insurance program could be popular, too. As one Capitol Hill veteran noted, “Congress loves temporary disaster relief.”

If the supercommittee does accept the farm bill and then manages to strike a deal before Thanksgiving, then the farm bill heads to Congress as part of the deficit reduction agreement. Congressmen will have to swallow the entire agreement or none at all. It’s unlikely that many would change their vote on the $1.2 trillion bill because of the relatively small, $23 billion agriculture component, meaning that if the supercommittee makes a plan that wins approval, the secret farm bill would become law regardless of who loves or hates it.

“The outside has really been shut out of the process,” commented a source on Capitol Hill. With this and other “secret” bills, there’s no knowing what surprises might be waiting if the supercommittee does in fact make a deal.

Maggie Severns is a program associate at the New America Foundation. Follow her @maggieseverns.

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 11
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Beautiful Darkness by Fabien Vehlmann & Kerascoët
    Kerascoët's lovely, delicate pen-and-watercolor art -- all intricate botanicals, big eyes and flowing hair -- gives this fairy story a deceptively pretty finish. You find out quickly, however, that these are the heartless and heedless fairies of folk legend, not the sentimental sprites beloved by the Victorians and Disney fans. A host of tiny hominid creatures must learn to survive in the forest after fleeing their former home -- a little girl who lies dead in the woods. The main character, Aurora, tries to organize the group into a community, but most of her cohort is too capricious, lazy and selfish to participate for long. There's no real moral to this story, which is refreshing in itself, beyond the perpetual lessons that life is hard and you have to be careful whom you trust. Never has ugly truth been given a prettier face.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Climate Changed: A Personal Journey Through the Science by Philippe Squarzoni
    Squarzoni is a French cartoonist who makes nonfiction graphic novels about contemporary issues and politics. While finishing up a book about France under Jacques Chirac, he realized that when it came to environmental policy, he didn't know what he was talking about. "Climate Changed" is the result of his efforts to understand what has been happening to the planet, a striking combination of memoir and data that ruminates on a notoriously elusive, difficult and even imponderable subject. Panels of talking heads dispensing information (or Squarzoni discussing the issues with his partner) are juxtaposed with detailed and meticulous yet lyrical scenes from the author's childhood, the countryside where he takes a holiday and a visit to New York. He uses his own unreachable past as a way to grasp the imminent transformation of the Earth. The result is both enlightening and unexpectedly moving.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Here by Richard McGuire
    A six-page version of this innovative work by a regular contributor to the New Yorker first appeared in RAW magazine 25 years ago. Each two-page spread depicts a single place, sometimes occupied by a corner of a room, over the course of 4 billion years. The oldest image is a blur of pink and purple gases; others depict hazmat-suited explorers from 300 years in the future. Inset images show the changing decor and inhabitants of the house throughout its existence: family photos, quarrels, kids in Halloween costumes, a woman reading a book, a cat walking across the floor. The cumulative effect is serene and ravishing, an intimation of the immensity of time and the wonder embodied in the humblest things.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Kill My Mother by Jules Feiffer
    The legendary Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist delivers his debut graphic novel at 85, a deliriously over-the-top blend of classic movie noir and melodrama that roams from chiaroscuro Bay City to Hollywood to a USO gig in the Pacific theater of World War II. There's a burnt-out drunk of a private eye, but the story is soon commandeered by a multigenerational collection of ferocious women, including a mysterious chanteuse who never speaks, a radio comedy writer who makes a childhood friend the butt of a hit series and a ruthless dame intent on making her whiny coward of a husband into a star. There are disguises, musical numbers and plenty of gunfights, but the drawing is the main attraction. Nobody convey's bodies in motion more thrillingly than Feiffer, whether they're dancing, running or duking it out. The kid has promise.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Motherless Oven by Rob Davis
    This is a weird one, but in the nervy surreal way that word-playful novels like "A Clockwork Orange" or "Ulysses" are weird. The main character, a teenage schoolboy named Scarper Lee, lives in a world where it rains knives and people make their own parents, contraptions that can be anything from a tiny figurine stashable in a pocket to biomorphic boiler-like entities that seem to have escaped from Dr. Seuss' nightmares. Their homes are crammed with gadgets they call gods and instead of TV they watch a hulu-hoop-size wheel of repeating images that changes with the day of the week. They also know their own "death day," and Scarper's is coming up fast. Maybe that's why he runs off with the new girl at school, a real troublemaker, and the obscurely dysfunctional Castro, whose mother is a cageful of talking parakeets. A solid towline of teenage angst holds this manically inventive vision together, and proves that some graphic novels can rival the text-only kind at their own game.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    NOBROW 9: It's Oh So Quiet
    For each issue, the anthology magazine put out by this adventurous U.K.-based publisher of independent graphic design, illustration and comics gives 45 artists a four-color palette and a theme. In the ninth issue, the theme is silence, and the results are magnificent and full of surprises. The comics, each told in images only, range from atmospheric to trippy to jokey to melancholy to epic to creepy. But the two-page illustrations are even more powerful, even if it's not always easy to see how they pertain to the overall concept of silence. Well, except perhaps for the fact that so many of them left me utterly dumbstruck with visual delight.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Over Easy by Mimi Pond
    When Pond was a broke art student in the 1970s, she took a job at a neighborhood breakfast spot in Oakland, a place with good food, splendid coffee and an endlessly entertaining crew of short-order cooks, waitresses, dishwashers and regular customers. This graphic memoir, influenced by the work of Pond's friend, Alison Bechdel, captures the funky ethos of the time, when hippies, punks and disco aficionados mingled in a Bay Area at the height of its eccentricity. The staff of the Imperial Cafe were forever swapping wisecracks and hopping in and out of each other's beds, which makes them more or less like every restaurant team in history. There's an intoxicating esprit de corps to a well-run everyday joint like the Imperial Cafe, and never has the delight in being part of it been more winningly portrayed.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Shadow Hero by Gene Luen Yang and Sonny Liew
    You don't have to be a superhero fan to be utterly charmed by Yang and Liew's revival of a little-known character created in the 1940s by the cartoonist Chu Hing. This version of the Green Turtle, however, is rich in characterization, comedy and luscious period detail from the Chinatown of "San Incendio" (a ringer for San Francisco). Hank, son of a mild-mannered grocer, would like to follow in his father's footsteps, but his restless mother (the book's best character and drawn with masterful nuance by Liew) has other ideas after her thrilling encounter with a superhero. Yang's story effortlessly folds pathos into humor without stooping to either slapstick or cheap "darkness." This is that rare tribute that far surpasses the thing it celebrates.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Shoplifter by Michael Cho
    Corinna Park, former English major, works, unhappily, in a Toronto advertising agency. When the dissatisfaction of the past five years begins to oppress her, she lets off steam by pilfering magazines from a local convenience store. Cho's moody character study is as much about city life as it is about Corinna. He depicts her falling asleep in front of the TV in her condo, brooding on the subway, roaming the crowded streets after a budding romance goes awry. Like a great short story, this is a simple tale of a young woman figuring out how to get her life back, but if feels as if it contains so much of contemporary existence -- its comforts, its loneliness, its self-deceptions -- suspended in wintery amber.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Through the Woods by Emily Carroll
    This collection of archetypal horror, fairy and ghost stories, all about young girls, comes lushly decked in Carroll's inky black, snowy white and blood-scarlet art. A young bride hears her predecessor's bones singing from under the floorboards, two friends make the mistake of pretending to summon the spirits of the dead, a family of orphaned siblings disappears one by one into the winter nights. Carroll's color-saturated images can be jagged, ornate and gruesome, but she also knows how to chill with absence, shadows and a single staring eye. Literary readers who cherish the work of Kelly Link or the late Angela Carter's collection, "The Bloody Chamber," will adore the violent beauty on these pages.

  • Recent Slide Shows

Comments

0 Comments

Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>