By Jerry Hagstrom
Can House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, deliver as much for U.S. agriculture and rural America as Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., did during her four years as speaker?
It will be a real challenge.
Pelosi's four years as speaker were the most active and important period in agricultural and rural policymaking since Congress passed the Food Stamp Act in 1964, creating the farm-to-table coalition of rural and urban interests that have assured passage of farm bills ever since. But the legacy is so big that it can be argued Pelosi's four years have been the single-most intensive period of agricultural policymaking since the New Deal era.
In Pelosi's first term as speaker, Congress passed the 2008 farm bill, which is perhaps the most popular bill of its kind in history. That bill continued the traditional crop subsidies as well as created or increased funding for a host of programs to benefit fruit and vegetable growers and organic and local producers.
The bill also eased eligibility requirements and increased benefits for food stamp recipients and renamed that program the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP. The $1 billion per year increase in food stamps in the 2008 farm bill came from an extension of import inspection fees that CBO and OMB agreed did not constitute a tax increase. That extension, engineered by then-House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Charles Rangel, D-N.Y., and Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus, D-Mont., was important because it allowed Congress to respond to pressure for an increase in nutrition benefits without making much of a cut in farm programs.
The bill did cut crop insurance and gave the Agriculture Department authority to renegotiate subsidies with the companies, but almost everyone except the companies and insurance agents agreed the industry could afford a cut.
In her second term, Congress's record on agriculture was even greater. The economic stimulus package eased SNAP eligibility requirements and increased benefits and provided additional spending to address rural America's biggest economic development problem: a lack of high-speed Internet service.
While the increase in SNAP funding is viewed as aid to the poor and the unemployed, it is a direct subsidy to the grocery stores, where benefits are used, and an indirect subsidy to the processors that make the food and to farmers. More than 43 million Americans get food stamps.
Next, Congress passed the Dodd-Frank financial services bill that contains provisions to try to address the inefficient functioning of some commodity futures markets.
Finally, in the lame-duck session, Congress reauthorized child nutrition programs, including a 6-cent per meal increase in the federal reimbursement to schools for each lunch and breakfast served so that the schools can afford to serve healthier foods. It also passed a food safety modernization act to give more powers to the Food and Drug Administration.
House Republicans objected strongly to the overall Dodd-Frank bill, the child nutrition bill, and the food safety bill, but it is fair to say that none of these bills would have passed if farm groups did not want them.
Farm groups split on the final FDA food safety bill because it contained provisions to ease the regulatory burden on small farmers who sell locally. But the FDA bill would never have seen the light of day if growers and the grocery industry had not promoted it as a way to restore consumer confidence after outbreaks of food-borne illness from tainted spinach, imported jalapeno peppers and peanuts caused declines in the purchases of those products.
Rural Americans did not, of course, give Pelosi and her Democrats much credit for these accomplishments. One farm lobbyist who tried to rally his members for former Rep. Earl Pomeroy, D-N.D., said voters were too upset about the House-passed climate change bill and the new health care law to listen. Pomeroy and many other rural Democrats were defeated.
Former House Agriculture Committee Chairman Collin Peterson, D-Minn., said that after the election Pelosi asked him, “What happened? We gave the farmers everything they wanted.” Peterson said he explained that with commodity prices high, times have been good in rural America. And when times are good, farmers worry more about regulation than the farm program and vote Republican.
Most farm leaders give Peterson rather than Pelosi credit for the farm bill and the commodity provisions of Dodd-Frank, but she was the one who gave Peterson the power. Now it is up to Boehner, who is known for his vote against the 2008 farm bill.
If Boehner follows Pelosi's lead and leaves the 2012 farm bill up to Rep. Frank Lucas, R-Okla., the new House Agriculture Committee chairman, the Republicans might do OK. Lucas has been a mainstream Republican from a diverse agricultural district that benefits from a variety of programs. But if the pressures to reduce the budget cut into agriculture's flesh, farmers might find a new appreciation for the much-vilified San Francisco Democrat.
One major Republican farm lobbyist said recently that rural America is volatile political territory. A lot of the rural Democrats who were defeated last year had been elected in 2006 and 2008. If farmers and other rural Americans aren't happy in 2012, he noted, they could turn against Republicans elected in 2010.