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July 26, 2013

LEE HAMILTON: Why governing is so difficult

So many interests, so much cash at stake

If you want to know why passing congress-ional legislation has gotten so difficult, here are two numbers to remember: five and 532. They illustrate a great deal about Congress today.

When I served in the House decades ago and the “farm bill” came up, stitching a successful piece of legislation together depended on getting five organizations to find common ground. They included groups like the national Farm Bureau and the Farmers Union, and our task was clear: get them to agree on what the bill ought to look like, and we had a measure that could pass.

This year, Congress is struggling to get a farm bill through. After the House of Representatives sent the first version down to defeat, no fewer than 532 organizations signed a letter to Speaker John Boehner asking him to bring a bill back to the floor as soon as possible. The array of groups was striking. The Farm Bureau signed on, but so did avocado growers and peach canners, beekeepers and archers, conservationists of all sorts, and huge businesses like Agri-Mark.

In essence, the big umbrella groups have broken into different constituent interests, with peanut growers and sheep ranchers and specialty-crop growers all pursuing their particular goals. Sometimes it feels like there’s a constituency for every commodity — and on such broader issues as biofuels, rural development and international trade. What used to require bringing together a handful of constituencies now demands horse-trading among hundreds.

Not every major piece of legislation before Congress is so complicated, but the farm bill is a perfect example of how tough it has become to get a major bill through, with so many competing interests and so much money at stake. Everything on Capitol Hill’s plate this year — from immigration reform to gun control to the upcoming debt ceiling fight — requires legislative language that a wide array of interest groups can agree to. This would be daunting but attainable if Congress operated the way it once did. But it doesn’t.

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