It’s important to remember that the federal farm bill has very little to do with farming – roughly 15% of the dollars appropriated in the bill goes to things like farm subsidies. Most of the money in the farm bill is for food assistance programs, conservation programs and the like. Another point to remember is that while the farm bill has a major impact on the cattle industry, the cattle industry is a minor footnote in the overall farm bill.
Everyone seems to be complaining these days about the partisanship that is paralyzing Washington, D.C. President Obama went on the offensive this week in a major economic address, spending considerable time both decrying the congressional partisanship and attacking Republicans. Whether it’s the Democratic leadership in the Senate or the Republican leadership in the House, both complain bitterly about the partisanship across the aisle.
What we’re discovering, however, is that partisanship has increased because the differences within our country have increased. Certainly, political posturing has always been part of the dynamics and it won’t go away, but the real differences between the parties have become so wide that the gap seems nearly impossible to bridge.
While a case can be made that activists and the bases within the parties have led to a radicalization of both parties, I think the reality is that America simply has grown more divided. I don’t think you can even say there is two Americas; it’s more like there are 10 Americas under the umbrellas of the two parties.
For instance, take a look at the farm bill. The House and Senate Conference Committee will begin to work on some sort of compromise fairly soon, but they begin at a position worlds apart. The House wants to cut $135 billion from the food stamp program over the next 10 years, while the Senate wants a $4-billion cut. The differences regarding the commodity titles are just as vast.
Target prices passed by the House are significantly higher than those passed in the Senate. The Senate wants to tie conservation programs with crop insurance subsidies, and would prorate insurance subsidies based on high adjusted gross incomes. Thus, big farmers would get smaller insurance subsidies than small farmers.
Meanwhile, the House wants to make the commodities programs permanent legislation, thus stopping the need for a new farm bill on a continuing basis. The Senate doesn’t favor this. And the list goes on and on.
It’s not that the House or Senate is playing games. Plus, agriculture has long been considered to be one of the most non-partisan areas in D.C., No, the differences are real and substantive, and they revolve around the role of government and to what degree the free market should be allowed to operate. It’s also about fiscal views and policies and how much money this country can continue to afford to borrow to fund government programs.
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Obama’s speech on his economic agenda was a great example of just how great these differences are. In his attempt to gain the general public’s support for his agenda, he casts the opposition’s view in the worst possible light. But the president’s mischaracterizations and attacks are no different than the tactics Republicans employ to stop his and the Democrats’ agenda.
These battles are extremely damaging to real and substantive dialogue on important issues, but they exist because the parties hold such polar opposite positions. Thus, compromise sits as a major defeat for both side, total victory is the only acceptable outcome.
The Republicans’ historic victory in 2010 bolsters their belief that victory for their world view is still possible, as is their belief that history has proven the alternative offered by Democrats to be wrong. The Democrats resounding victory in 2012, however, tells them that complete victory is within their grasp.
Compromise requires common ground, and there is precious little of that today.
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