For what the farm bill’s travails also illustrate is that Congress is now a legislatively challenged institution. The leaders on the Hill have fewer tools of persuasion than they once did. They abolished “earmarks,” so they can no longer promise a bridge or a road to secure a member’s vote, and they carry less respect and political clout. The political parties that once helped enforce discipline can no longer do so, since politicians these days often identify themselves with outside groups like the tea party rather than with their political party. With the rise of Super PACs, neither congressional leaders nor political parties have as much influence over fundraising — and hence the “loyalty” it once imposed — as they used to.
To make matters worse, many members — especially in the Republican Party, though it’s not limited to the GOP’s side of the aisle — do not like to compromise. As I suggested at the beginning, compromise is at the heart of the farm bill. For the last 50 years, it’s been put together by joining crop support and nutrition support — food stamps — in order to win the votes of both rural and urban lawmakers. And within the rural sections of the bill, wheeling and dealing on the specifics has been the only way to generate legislation that farm-state legislators could all agree upon. Now that formula is broken, though I do believe an accommodation will be worked out.
But the problems go beyond that, and it’s not bad that the usual inertia on the farm bill has found difficult going. The country needs to confront basic questions about the $16 billion annual subsidy and heavy trade protection accorded to agriculture — when fewer than 1 percent of Americans are farmers and farming has become a hugely corporate industry. Likewise, with 1 in 6 Americans now receiving food stamps, we need a real debate about the food stamp program, which makes up 80 percent of the cost of the bill.
In other words, we’re not getting what we actually need, which is a real policy debate on the role of the government in agriculture. If Congress were working properly, this might have been possible. Increasingly, I fear it’s beyond Capitol Hill’s reach.
Lee Hamilton is director of the Center on Congress at Indiana University Bloomington. He was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years.