The wrangling over the 2012 farm bill, which dragged on and on and on before the legislation finally won approval in early 2014 is, says John Anderson, “emblematic of just how difficult it has become to get anything done in Washington.
“Everyone worked on it for the better part of three years, and the level of difficulty we went through was unprecedented. A lot of people say, ‘Well, that just goes to show how rural America has lost a lot of its political clout, and that agriculture isn’t as important politically as it once was.
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“I don’t really buy that argument. The real issue is that we’re in an extremely difficult environment in this country for getting anything done legislatively. Aside from the farm bill, ask yourself how much else is getting accomplished in Washington these days?”
Anderson, who hails from Arkansas and was an Extension ag economist at Mississippi State University before assuming his present position as deputy senior economist with the American Farm Bureau Federation in Washington, says the main reason for the legislative inertia is “there’s just not as much money as there used to be to pay for programs that in an earlier era might have won passage rather easily.”
Now, in terms of national priorities, he says, “the major emphases are the enormous national debt and the huge annual budget deficits, and there’s a lot of effort to rein these in. The factions that have developed and the divisiveness that occurred during the farm bill process really aren’t anything new in terms of ag policy and infighting between commodity groups, regions, urban/rural, etc.
“Those factions have been there in the past, but it was easier to find the monetary ‘grease’ to smooth out things between them. With this farm bill, we just didn’t have as much ‘grease’ as we used to in terms of implementing policy, and that contributed to the length of the process.”
The new farm bill, Anderson says, has been characterized as “the biggest change in ag policy we’ve had since 1996, when we got Freedom to Farm, direct payments, and complete planting flexibility — all major shifts in ag policy.
“Now, we’re moving away from direct cash transfers, while still trying to maintain as much planting flexibility as we can, and putting more emphasis on crop. So, the passage of this bill, despite the time it took to hammer it out, and considering all the differing interest groups and frictions involved, really is a big deal.
“I think there are a lot of good things in the bill,” Anderson says, “and a lot of really talented, dedicated folks worked really hard to get it done.”