Politics & Policy

Farming Out Principle

Second chances, lost opportunities, and the farm bill.

The Lord, they say, moves in mysterious ways. So perhaps He was at work earlier this month when the Congress imploded trying to override the veto of a farm bill that has variously been described by editorial boards across America as a “bloated monstrosity” (News-Sentinel of Fort Wayne, Ind.), “outrageous” (Charleston, W. Va., Daily Mail), “absurd” (St. Louis Post-Dispatch), “disgraceful” (New York Times), “shameful” (Wisconsin State Journal), “irresponsible” (Houston Chronicle), “maddeningly stupid, wasteful, and ridiculous” (the News Tribune of Tacoma, Wash.), “ “a bipartisan bumper crop of very rich manure” (Pittsburgh Tribune-Review),” “laughable” (Orlando Sentinel), “ludicrous” (Detroit News), “ridiculous” (the Lowell Sun), and (in perhaps the most diplomatic criticism of all) an “unlovely creation” (Washington Post).

A major snag developed in the rush to turn this turkey into law. The bill that Speaker Pelosi and Majority Leader Reid transmitted to the president, and the bill he vetoed, was not the bill passed by both chambers. An entire section of the bill sent to the White House — one containing some important trade provisions — was inadvertently left out. Oops.

Some argue that portions of the bill are now the law of the land; the White House says Congress needs to “go back to the drawing board.” In any event, this stinker of a bill will continue to sit out there over the remainder of Congress’s Memorial Day recess. By my count, over 50 papers (many with significant farm state readerships) have already run vitriolic anti-farm-bill editorials. More are sure to follow. Both sides of the blogosphere — right and left — have exploded in indignation as well.

The undisguised disgust evident in these editorials and postings arises from the bill’s Caligula-like excesses. It’s the epitome of wasteful governmental largesse. How bad is it? In the words of one pro-subsidy blogger: “lucrative beyond expectations.”

Washington’s on-going addiction to spending is one reason the congressional approval rating has tumbled to 18 percent in the latest Gallup Poll. Lawmakers’ continuing excesses inspire distrust as well as disgust. Americans simply no longer trust their government to exercise sound judgment, most especially when it comes to spending their tax dollars.

How can lawmakers win back the trust and respect of the public? The first step on the road to recovery is to acknowledge that you have a problem. But acknowledging the problem appears to be a near insurmountable hurdle for many self-styled conservatives on Capitol Hill.

Even as the GOP — the nation’s purported conservative party — flounders and conservatism itself endures attacks from many quarters, America remains a right-of-center country. Comfortable majorities of Americans still believe, after all, that the government is “inefficient and wasteful” (62 percent), that government regulation of businesses does more harm than good (57 percent), and that poor Americans have become too dependent on government subsidies (69 percent). Never has the military been more respected. Even a plurality of that most sought-after of voter groups — Independents — prefers smaller to bigger government by a margin of 48 percent to 40 percent.

Conservatives on the Hill want to believe they’ve started on that long road to recovery. Last week, Rep. Paul Ryan (R., Wis.) unveiled an exquisite and ambitious reform agenda he calls “A Roadmap for America’s Future.” In it, Ryan sets forth a credible way to address the fiscal catastrophe sure to come when the Boomers retire (consisting of foundational reforms to the big three entitlement programs — Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid) even as he reforms our tax system to promote economic growth and ensure American competitiveness. Sen. Jim DeMint (R., S.C.) and some members of the Republican Study Committee in the House have also offered up visionary action plans that should please conservatives.

But no matter how many times Ryan or his allies scream “I get it” from the mountaintop and vow to do the right thing if returned to power, the voters will not believe them until they believe his colleagues are capable of acting in a way that is consistent with conservative principles and contrary to their parochial, political interests. The voters seem to be saying: do something out of character. Admit you were wrong about something. Give me a reason to pay attention to all those 10-point action plans you’re waving around.

Imagine the public’s reaction if 50 or so of the supposedly conservative lawmakers who originally voted for that monstrous farm bill had found the courage last week to admit they’d made a mistake and then voted to uphold the president’s veto.

Suppose, moreover, that they had explained their change of heart by articulating some good old-fashioned conservative first principles. Despite the bill’s appeal to special interests back home, they might have said, the legislation would do too much harm to our economy and environment. It would worsen world hunger, impede free trade, and further constrain the family budget.

This would be courageous, principled, and refreshing. And, despite what a cynical lawmaker might tell you, it would not be political suicide. After all, two-thirds of farmers receive no subsidies at all. Most of the cash goes to a select group of large corporate agribusinesses that play both sides of the political aisle anyway.

Now suppose that, with conservatives voting in accordance with their principles, the president’s veto had been upheld. Well, then, the voters might actually start listening to them again… with a little less disgust and a little more trust.

Michael G. Franc is vice president of government relations for the Heritage Foundation.


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