The mysterious farm bill, sequestration’s virtues, and the death of airport newsstands

June 25, 2013

1.  Can someone please explain the farm bill fight?

I’m a news junkie. But I am completely clueless about one policy issue that is hugely important (it affects what we eat and how much we pay for it), involves hundreds of billions of dollars in government programs and subsidies, and was splashed all over the front pages last week as the latest example of congressional dysfunction.

I’m referring, of course, to America’s farm policy (that’s farm, not foreign) and what last week’s headlines called “the farm bill.”

What is the farm bill? I know it has to do with paying subsidies to farmers for something, enforcing price supports (whatever that means) on some crops or commodities, funding food stamps, and implementing a bunch of other programs supposedly to help the farming economy. But that’s all I know, and I bet that’s all a lot of you know.

This front page New York Times story is so typical of how the mainstream media has covered the farm bill fight that one could start to believe theories that if a story is playing out between the two coasts (where most farms are), most editors and reporters must think it’s not worth worrying about. The Times story refers to the “farm bill” repeatedly, but the paper apparently assumes either that I already know what it is or that I don’t care, because it never describes it. Instead, the focus is all about Washington — the political fallout over the farm bill, whatever it is, being stalled in Congress following a bitter split in Republican ranks.

In fact, to the extent that this and other coverage has delved into the substance of the bill, it’s been mostly about the one part of it that has nothing to do with farming — the food stamp program.

So could someone please do a simple story telling us exactly what the farm bill is and what all the fighting is about? Because the ins and outs are so remote from public view or understanding, this has to be a lobbyists’ festival. Reporters also do well when they crash these parties.

Who is on which side of which issues for what reasons?

How will its resolution, one way or the other, affect not only the farm economy but also what we will pay for food?

How much do taxpayers now pay to support which type of farmers (family or agribusinesses?) and which other industries, and how is that likely to change if a new bill finally passes? What are the arguments for and against these subsidies? What happens if no bill gets passed?

I’m not asking for Woodward and Bernstein here. Just a basic story that explains it all. After all, if, as we saw last week, it’s got the Republicans and even the Democrats fighting fiercely among themselves, it must be interesting — and important.

Note: As I was drafting this item, this column  by James Warren highlighting some aspects of the farm bill (such as how it affects olive oil retailers in Staten Island) appeared in the New York Daily News. It’s a good start.

2.  Sequestration spoils Paris in June:

This story from the aviation industry blog reports that because of sequestration the Pentagon didn’t send its usual fleet of fighter jets to put on a show “in the skies above Paris” last week in honor of the Paris Air Show. The June air show is an annual aviation industry convention and, according to the site, this is the “first time in more than two decades” that the Air Force didn’t put on a show there.

The trade publication, which noted that the Russian Air Force would be fully represented, described the American absence as an example of sequestration “taking its toll.” My reaction was different. Maybe this was an example of sequestration actually eliminating something that might be a waste of money, rather than cutting worthy expenditures with a sledgehammer. (With that in mind, it would have been nice if had bothered to tell us how much was saved by keeping the jets home.)

The Washington Post has done an excellent job pinpointing, agency by agency, how sequestration has caused furloughs and cut into some important programs. Maybe it’s time for the Post’s troops or some other enterprising reporters to find other examples, like grounding the Paris-bound jets, where sequestration nailed some worthy targets.

3.  The high cost of good intentions:

Among the provisions tucked into the massive Dodd-Frank financial reform legislation passed three years ago was a requirement that publicly held corporations must disclose whether so-called “conflict minerals” are “necessary to the functionality or production” of a company’s products. Conflict minerals are those, such as tin or gold, that are extracted from the Democratic Republic of Congo or adjoining countries where armed conflict or human rights abuses are likely involved in mining them.

Although it has nothing to do with curbing the financial and banking system abuses that Dodd-Frank is supposed to be about, this simple disclosure regulation doesn’t seem like a bad idea. Perhaps if companies had to disclose that they are making money off of such misery they might be embarrassed into stopping.

However, last week when I noticed that the SEC had issued a list of Frequently Asked Questions, with answers, related to the rule, I was reminded that going into the weeds to see how seemingly benign regulations play out in real life is usually a fun, important story.

The 1,700-word FAQ document deals with everything from whether a public company whose product was only in the packaging material containing conflict minerals had to disclose that in its SEC filing, to when a company that acquires another company that uses conflict minerals has to begin disclosing. And it turns out those FAQs were apparently the first in a series being issued to explain a mind-numbing 356 page — yes 356 pages — rule promulgated two years after Dodd-Frank passed that laid out the disclosure requirements.

That document is a Washington lawyer’s dream. The details ranged from defining the standard of “due diligence” that must be applied when following the chain of custody of the ingredients in the company’s products, to instructions on how to categorize recycled ingredients, to defining “necessary to the functionality,” to specifying the “auditing standards” that must be used for the disclosure.

So, how about a story explaining how many companies — especially the unlikely ones that we don’t instinctively associate with mining — now have lawyers working away on these disclosures, and whether it’s all worth it?

Indeed, whether it’s Dodd-Frank or Obamacare, there are probably dozens of stories out there like this one. I bet an ambitious reporter could pick almost any paragraph of either bill at random and explore what is likely to be the high — even if justifiable — cost of good intentions.

4.  Is The FAA about to kill newsstand sales?

While we’re discussing unintended consequences of regulatory decisions, here’s another idea: Last week the Federal Aviation Administration announced that it will probably soon eliminate the much-discredited prohibition on passengers using electronic devices such as e-readers during takeoffs and landings. That rule was about the only reason left that I ever bought a newspaper or magazine at an airport newsstand. I wonder how many readers are like me. Soon after the prohibition is lifted, someone ought to see how key airport vendors like Hudson News have been affected.

PHOTO: Litto Sanchez sets up rows for the planting of tomatoes in Oneonta, Alabama May 23,2012.  REUTERS/Marvin Gentry


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The US farm bill is a corporate victory and a slap to struggling Americans

The US Congress wants to deny 2 million people food stamps, while hardly denting large agribusinesses

Heidi Moore (updated)
Heidi Moore, Tuesday 11 June 2013 15.24 EDT
Jump to comments (78)

The latest US farm bill would substantially cut food stamps.

The cost of providing poor Americans with food stamps has doubled in the past four years, reflecting the fact that a record 47.8 million people are struggling to feed themselves and their families. The US Congress has an answer to the growth in poverty: force more people to struggle.

This glib response to a national crisis will be tested in the farm bill that passed the US Senate on Monday and will be up for debate in the House soon. Even though it’s called “the farm bill,” it’s actually the legislation that primarily funds the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program – better known as food stamps.

The Senate version would cut food stamps by $400m a year, adding up to $4bn over the decade covered by the bill. The House version, up for bitter debate starting next week, promises to cut even more: $20bn, mostly as a sop to conservative lawmakers who killed the bill last year because of what they considered a measly $16bn in cuts. At the current size, the House bill would deny 2 million people with low incomes access to food stamps, Reuters said.

By cutting the food stamp program, lawmakers are trying to make room or trade political points for what they really have to do, which is cut wasteful and ineffective subsidies to wealthy farmers that favor factory farming and disadvantage small farmers who make less than $250,000 a year. By the way, some of those wealthy farmers benefitting from subsidies in the farm bill are, very conveniently, also members of Congress.

And before you start believing this is an issue just concerning “the poor,” remember that poverty has increasingly affected the middle class, too. Food stamps were initially created to help feed working families. Even now, a man or woman working full-time at minimum wage is making only $15,000 a year – a salary so low that it is eligible for food stamps. Not only do 14% of Americans live in poverty, but in some suburbs, food stamp use has doubled or even tripled. CNN Money told the story of one New Jersey suburb, Morris County, where food stamp use had grown by 240% by 2012. Then, of course, there is the unemployment crisis as 12 million Americans remain unemployed, about 40% of them for long-term periods longer than 6 months.

It should be clear to members of Congress that improving the financial lot of Americans is more important than any other task at hand, as well as a task they have consistently failed to accomplish. Yet legislators keep blowing their chances to do anything constructive, leading even Federal Reserve chairman Ben Bernanke to chide fussbudget lawmakers for their counterproductive waste of time on cutting pie-in-the-sky estimates of deficits.

So, in response to this very real, very pressing, very immediate crisis, Congress is creating a particularly grotesque imitation of economic stimulus. Congress is not providing any alternatives to struggling families as it cuts the food stamp program, it is just slashing the cost and hoping that poverty – and its siblings, unemployment and crime and homelessness – fix themselves. Good plan.

This bill, like almost everything else in Congress, will prove a testing ground for what America values more: partisan power and petty bickering, or some progress, however meager, on our ongoing economic crisis. The economic recovery is not real. The farm bill is an economic disaster as well as a public health disaster.

There is one thing that can change this: any kind of response from Americans. Unfortunately, too many have been silent on the subject of the farm bill. That will leave Congress, over the next few weeks of debate, to listen selectively to the the voices that are loudest: their donors in big agricultural companies and among wealthy farmers. In one year – 2009 to 2010 – those groups poured $8.5m into the fundraising coffers of members of the House Agriculture Committee.

Needless to say, corporate sponsors don’t much care what happens to food stamps. Let’s see if they carry the day.

Posted by EconCassandra | Report as abusive

1 – the farm bill was written by Lobbyists and is in conflict with the other Lobbyists who did not get a piece of the action.

2- Sequestration doe snot have Lobbyists. so, like the electorate, they are out of luck.

3 – Good intentions always cost more in DC.

4 – Hudson News needs a Lobbyist…so line them up.

Posted by rikfre | Report as abusive

The ‘farm bill’ is big and sort of complicated. There is information out there about it, but mostly it’s not in the coastal publications, at least not the big ones. I think you perceive that accurately. Best to consult a small newspaper in the greater Midwest region of the country, in a rural area, for articles that help explain what’s going on. But now and again there is a good article about the farm bill in the big newspapers. I think the problem is cultural, namely, reporters at the big papers don’t come from these backgrounds, but I don’t have a complete explanation for the lack of well informed coverage.

A lot of the controversy now does have to do with food stamps. The House version of the farm bill would radically cut the program, while the Senate version would not. Why are food stamps contained in the farm bill? I don’t know. It’s probably a reason based on some historical quirk, but nonetheless food stamps (SNAP) are a huge item in the legislation.

Posted by Calfri | Report as abusive

I think the problem with the lack of good coverage is mainly cultural. The best coverage of the farm bill is to be found in farm newspapers and small Midwestern papers located in rural areas.

The problem with the farm bill legislation right now seems to be mainly SNAP. The House bill would gut SNAP, while the Senate version would largely preserve it.

Posted by Calfri | Report as abusive