We've heard it said so often that it has almost gained cliché status — that the people who live and work in Washington, D.C., are out of touch with reality, or that they have no idea what those of us who live outside the Beltway are thinking or doing. And, like a lot of clichés, it makes a generalization that might not always be fair.
But in the case of the farm bill, the actions we've witnessed in recent months have to make you wonder.
This point was driven home for me recently when I found myself sitting next to a high-ranking USDA official during a research field day in south Georgia. I inquired as to his thoughts on the fate of the farm bill legislation that passed the U.S. House of Representatives in late July.
The official shook his head and replied he wasn't sure how it would all end up. He said that USDA Secretary Mike Johanns had traveled throughout the country holding farm bill “listening sessions” to hear from growers what they wanted in a new farm bill. USDA then offered a farm bill proposal, but it was nothing like the one currently being considered by the U.S. Senate, said this official.
He seemed genuinely bewildered at this turn of events.
Now I didn't personally attend all these listening sessions, but I did travel to three of them, and I read the transcripts from a few others. My impression from the farmers testifying was that they essentially would be satisfied with a farm bill that looks much like the 2002 legislation, with slight modifications. They knew that budgets were tight — no fault of their own — and that sacrifices might have to be made, but they pleaded for the continuation of a program that had generally been good to them.
We can argue all day about which proposal is best — the one put forth by the USDA or the one passed by the House. Each has its merits and each has its shortcomings. But one thing is for certain — the USDA proposal did not reflect the view of most farmers who testified at the “listening sessions,” and to say as much shows a disconnect with reality.
Another example of this “inside the Beltway” mentality was the House vote itself. The legislation at first appeared to be a bipartisan cakewalk but quickly turned into a political tussle, eventually passing 232 to 191, with 19 Republicans joining 212 Democrats in favor of the farm bill proposal.
The rancorous debate focused not on agricultural policy but rather on a tax provision that was inserted into the bill to pay for a $4 billion increase in nutrition programs.
Those who voted against the farm bill called the provision a “tax increase,” boldly declaring they refused to vote for a tax increase in any form or fashion. This is all well and good, but it requires a couple of points of clarification.
The “tax increase” is actually the closing of a tax loophole for foreign corporations. The U.S. Treasury Department stated previously that this particular loophole was costing the United States billions of dollars in lost revenue. It will not apply to any company headquartered in the United States, and 90 percent of the increased revenue from closing the loophole will come from companies based in low or no-tax jurisdictions overseas.
The second clarification is that this Congress is attempting to operate under a “pay-as-you-go” rule. Most of us are familiar with this rule because we routinely adhere to it whenever we're conducting our own business, be it balancing our family's household budget or allocating funds for a farming operation. Simply put, it means not spending what you don't have. If you do decide to spend more money in one area, that money either has to come from a cut in another area or from an increase in revenue.
Considering the tremendous deficit accumulated by this government in the past six years, “pay-as-you-go” would seem like a reasonable approach. And the harsh truth is that if we want to maintain farm programs at least at current levels, in addition to adding funds for specialty crops, land conservation and alternative fuels, then the money will have to come from someplace else.
If there is a member of Congress out there who believes there is one farmer who would rather protect the tax liabilities of foreign corporations rather than pass a fair and responsible farm bill, then he or she is truly out of touch, and perhaps that's the case.