Secretary Vilsack stirred up a fuss the other week with his comment that rural America has become "less and less relevant." Agree or not with that, it seems obvious farm groups and the congressional ag committees have become less and less relevant.
Their handiwork was brushed aside in the farm-bill extension that Congress passed as part of its fiscal-cliff solution. Forget about reforming dairy policy, ending direct payments and extending specialty-crops or even some conservation programs. Whatever the merits of these changes, they were what the ag pros in Congress had agreed on, the compromises the committee chairs thought they'd worked out, compromises that they thought most farm groups could live with. The Biden-McConnell extension ignored them.
It was, wrote David Rogers of Politico, "a wake-up call to the entire farm lobby of its weakened political standing in Washington and need to avoid so much infighting." (http://tiny.cc/…)
Rogers has been covering Congress for years and has a reputation as a straight shooter. He followed last year's farm-bill negotiations closely. His analysis, in other words, deserves agriculture's attention. The picture he paints is not pretty. "Stunning" is the word he used to describe the way the extension was handled:
"As agriculture has grown more concentrated, it commands fewer votes," Rogers reported. "Indeed, consumer fears about milk prices drove the deliberations more than dairy farmers. And in these tough economic times for the nation, the farm sector has been enjoying relative prosperity and in the eyes of many lawmakers has become more complacent politically.
"Despite the promise of tens of billions in long term savings, this Congress is ending with no five-year farm plan in place, and with relative impunity Boehner has gone for months blocking floor action on the House Agriculture Committee's bill reported last July.
"Republicans paid a price in November in Senate races, such as North Dakota. But it was not a huge price and the fact that the extension was handled this way with the tacit acquiescence of the White House and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) is stunning."
Over the next few months the ag committees could come under pressure from Congressional leaders to churn out another version of the farm bill with even deeper cuts. It will be interesting to see whether, having been thus humbled, they try again with something like last year's efforts, or head down a new path.