Jan. 31, 2024
Lee Drutman and Justin Wahl authored a piece for Mother Jones on how the renewal of the US farm bill is mired in partisan conflict.
This is a high-stakes problem. If the bill is allowed to expire without another extension or new bill, its commodity programs will revert back to “permanent law”—standards set by the farm bills in 1938 and 1949. That would create an economic disaster. The government would begin buying products off the market, causing prices of essentials like milk to skyrocket. And although SNAP benefits (food stamps) and federal crop insurance are permanently funded, some of the farm bill’s smaller programs would run out of money and begin to lose the legal authority to function. Programs to help organic farmers compete or to help seniors afford locally grown produce would be some of the first to be affected.
Delays have consequences, too. It costs more to farm than it did when the last farm bill was passed in 2018, and the reference prices that determine when farmers get financial assistance for particular crops need updating. A year’s delay in cost updates can make a big difference in an industry where a drought, storm, or early fall freeze can dramatically alter a farmer’s economic picture. That’s the reason the farm bill is reconsidered every five years—to keep the Depression-era law up to date with the needs of the day.
And while the worst case scenario of missing the deadline and reverting back to permanent law seems unlikely, nothing is certain in this Congress. It is, after all, the same group that spent three weeks last fall aimlessly playing musical chairs with the Speaker of the House and was one of the least productive Congresses in recent history.
So why are we here? Why can’t Congress get this done?
The answer is the political doom loop, in which polarization leads to dysfunction, leading to more polarization and more dysfunction. More than 90 percent of congressional districts were uncompetitive in the last election, meaning that the overwhelming majority of representatives have districts that are safe for their party. Gerrymandering makes this worse, but the core problem is that Republicans and Democrats increasingly live in different places. The boundary lines in the farm bill fight make this clear: Democrats increasingly represent largely urban, very liberal districts; Republicans largely rural, very conservative ones. Representatives who choose legislative combat over compromise are representing the hyper-partisan demands of their most loyal and active voters. In this political environment, it can be strategically savvy to use everything you can get your hands on as a political weapon against your opponents.