Optimistic Moaning

By Steve Kopperud, Policy Directions, Inc.

A favorite brick to throw at Congress over the years has been that it’s a “do-nothing institution,” too caught up in the politics of reelection, control, and one-upmanship than in specifically representing constituent interests or generally doing the nation’s business. That criticism can be fairly labeled as universal, meaning the average citizen is generally never happy with Congress.

In years gone by, while Congress might have fiddled as the nation appeared ready to burst into flames, as it came down to the last hours before a major recess or the last days before adjournment, the institution suddenly got all efficient and dealt with whatever eleventh-hour emergencies loomed. It was frustrating, but like death and taxes, it was something you could count on.

Today, there is every indication that, like a cold that turns into the flu or a sick child that infects its siblings, Congress is no longer the master of brinksmanship; it’s become almost dysfunctional. And whether by example or unfortunate coincidence, the White House suffers mightily from the same malady. For the legislative and executive branches, it’s all about the politics and the publicity, not the product or the service.

The United States (US) government now runs away from difficult or unpopular decisions, opting instead to kick the can down the road in hopes someone else will come up with a politically palatable solution. The US government ignores its own deadlines, ignores the laws it’s enacted, and does what’s politically expedient over what’s practically necessary. And let’s not even get into the Internal Revenue Service, National Security Agency, or the rest of the agencies dominating the resident talking heads these days.

In Congress, a great example is the tortuous route to House passage of the 2013 farm bill. The farm bill is not just commodity programs, but carries sections dealing with alternative energy, agricultural research, conservation, trade promotion, and nutrition. It’s this last section that has proved the Achilles’ heel of the ag community in Washington, DC. The nutrition section carries the federal food stamp program, the Women, Infant, and Children nutrition program, and various other federal feeding and food assistance programs. Yes, they’re administered by the US Department of Agriculture, but they have as much to do with farm programs and ag research as your spouse’s sport utility vehicle has to do with the space shuttle. Having said that, they’re both necessary assistance packages and both are in desperate need of reinvention.

Farm programs and nutrition programs are married in the farm bill out of political expediency. A rural member pushing for a farm income safety net will hold his/her nose and vote for a bill with the nutrition programs, while the urban member turns a blind eye to farm program payments and crop insurance votes to service urban constituents. It’s a workable, albeit uncomfortable arrangement going back decades.

Keeping in mind the farm bill was supposed to be reauthorized in 2012 – and could have been, given the House Agriculture Committee did its job in hammering together a bill – House leadership decided it wouldn’t bring the bill to the floor for fear it would fail. Forgive the digression, but if leadership of either party only brings bills to the floor guaranteed to pass, then Congress can be rejiggered into a seasonal event, perhaps a January to February kind of operation.

The House Agriculture Committee then reworked its magic, passed another farm bill in 2013, and awaited its blessing from House leadership. However, in their zeal to demonstrate fiscal restraint, House GOP conservatives targeted federal food stamps for deep cuts in “fraud, waste, and abuse,” enraging their liberal, urban colleagues. An attempt to restore the cuts failed, and the bill was headed for approval – albeit likely by the slimmest of margins – when leadership called up as the last amendment a requirement that food stamp recipients prove they’re working or in work training. That was the step too far, the proverbial straw, and for the first time in history, a farm bill – traditionally the epitome of bipartisan legislation – failed.

The farm bill finally saw approval in mid-July, but only after House leadership turned a deaf ear to 532 state, regional, and national ag groups and to their Democrat colleagues, and stripped the nutrition programs out of the bill. The ag-only bill passed narrowly, but conservatives are happy because they get another shot at federal food stamps. How conference will go is anyone’s guess, but they have to finish by the end of September because that’s when the current law runs out.

Yet those looming deadlines no longer provide the incentive they once did. In the past, we’d expect a rush to judgment and finality during the last week in September. Now, it’s anyone’s guess whether that deadline means anything to the House or Senate.

There has been similar lack of action on federal student loan interest rates. They’ve doubled because for whatever reason, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) announced he wouldn’t bring the issue to the Senate floor. Debates have raged over the impact of the sequester on various vital services, but no action or even recommendations are forthcoming. The debt ceiling looms – sure to be another fun, fact-filled debate – and because nothing has been done about sequester and no one has a plan to avoid a political noise fest over the debt ceiling, none of the 13 federal appropriations bills will likely see congressional action again this year.

For President Barack Obama’s administration, it’s a similar game of rhetoric and no action. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is a classic example. In an administration that publicly prides itself on food safety, the rules necessary to implement the Food Safety Modernization Act – the biggest change in the federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act in 70 years – still are not in place and governing the marketplace both domestically and overseas.

Oh, they’ve been drafted by the Center for Veterinary Medicine for animal feed, rendering, and pet food. And the Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition has finished its work on the human food side and has formally published its proposed rules. Yet, the White House Office of Management and Budget has dithered over its review of these rules to the point that FDA has now missed every single statutory deadline Congress set for implementation.

The animal feed/rendering rules won’t even be published until December 2013 – at the earliest.

Immigration reform is yet another excellent example of politics trumping reality and economics, and both the administration and Congress are guilty of politicizing the fates of 11 million undocumented workers now in the United States and heavily relied upon by American agriculture to do jobs other folks won’t.

I was heartened when I saw such political opposites as Senators Chuck Schumer (D-NY) and Marco Rubio (R-FL) in the same room negotiating a comprehensive bipartisan bill on federal immigration reform. I was pleased that Senator Patrick Leady, chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, finally abandoned his partisan speechifying, holding multiple hearings and weeks of markup once the reform package landed on his desk. I was ultimately thrilled when the weak border security section of the bill was reinforced by another bipartisan effort, and the bill was passed by the full Senate and by a wide majority.

For whatever reason, House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) won’t even consider the Senate’s bill, likely because he’s got about 70 ultraconservative members chewing on him to deport all 11 million undocumented workers, a demand that gives little regard to the economic impact on food and agriculture production if two to three million workers are lost to bad policy.

To its credit – and perhaps because Boehner and others recall presidential candidate Mitt Romney received about half a dozen Hispanic votes in the last election – the House is moving forward on its own version of immigration reform, albeit in bits and pieces. Let’s hope a package is assembled on the House floor that stands a chance of conferencing with the Senate. A pretty naïve statement, given all of that legislative drama will take place next year – an election year.

At the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue, the administration wastes billions of electrons talking about FDA, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, and Environmental Protection Agency rulemakings based upon “the best available science and the rule of law.” Any Washington, DC, ag lobbyist can give you a fairly complete list of when both of those conditions have been ignored.

A good example is FDA’s first-in-class application for a genetically enhanced food animal, an Atlantic salmon that, thanks to a snippet of DNA from a Chinook salmon, grows to market weight in half the time on half the feed. The application for approval has pended at FDA for nearly 15 years; three years ago FDA’s Veterinary Medical Advisory Committee met and recommended approval as the salmon has been shown to be identical to conventional Atlantic salmon, is safe, and has no allergenicity issues. FDA is hamstrung by an administration dedicated to easy, noncontroversial approvals and happy talk. This is reminiscent of the run up to FDA approval of bovine somatotrophin during the Bill Clinton years. The Clinton White House followed the science, not the poll numbers.

The United States is embarking upon bilateral trade negotiations with the European Union in blind hopes there will be an epiphany in Europe, the precautionary principle will be tossed aside, all opposition to biotechnology and various animal health products will be objectively discussed, and in the end, the two powerhouses will walk arm in arm into the international trade sunset. I see the effort as naïve at best; a waste of time, manpower, and money at worst.

However, after all of that moaning, I’m an optimist. The Senate is showing promise it can/might return to the kind of deliberative body it’s supposed to be. The House has always been a kind of political shoot-out, but has generally gotten its job done.

The really good news? Next year, 2014, is an election year.

August 2013 RENDER | back