Agricultural Exceptionalism

House Agriculture Committee Chairman Colin Peterson (D, Sugarbeet Farmers) announced yesterday [$] that he would begin hearings on the 2012 Farm Bill this spring. I’m still recovering from the traumatizing 2008 Farm Bill fight, so I heard this news with some trepidation.

But wait! Put those red pens away, folks, because Chairman Peterson plans to keep on spending on agricultural programs. Heaven forbid that agriculture should take any of those “cuts” we’ve been hearing so much about :

House Agriculture Committee Chairman Collin Peterson, D-Minn., said… he is determined to write a bipartisan bill that is within the funding baseline that exists in 2012.

The funding baseline is the amount of money that the Congressional Budget Office determines would be spent on all programs in the farm bill if the same programs were to continue after 2012. CBO projects the funding levels based on spending in programs in past years.

Peterson said at least initially he expects each major farm bill section — the farm program, conservation and nutrition — to stay within its 2012 baseline.

He also specifically pledged to fight off any attempts to lower direct payments, which flow to current or past farmers of certain crops year-in-year-out, regardless of whether they still farm or not.

Some further details on his plans for the next farm bill can be found in this National Journal article [$ again, sorry] but the gist of it is that Chairman Peterson doesn’t want reformers interfering the way they did last time, even if farmers were left practically unscathed from the battle.

In a speech to the National Association of Wheat Growers and U.S. Wheat Associates, Peterson said that reformers “who don’t understand how this works … defined what reform is” in 2008. Peterson said there should be changes to the farm bill, but he ridiculed one of the reformers’ biggest goals: limitations on payments to big farmers.

The campaign to lower payment limits “is not reform. It’s an ideology,” he said. Reformers want Congress to decide what size farms should get subsidies, a notion that Peterson rejects. “We are not smart enough in government to decide what farm size is,” he said.

(Sidebar: Isn’t it cute how Chairman Peterson couches his opposition to farm payment limits in libertarianish terms about how government “isn’t smart enough.” His support for a 80+-year-old suite of government interventions suggests he is not as skeptical about government’s smarts as he indicates in this little political aside. But I digress.)

And in a charming dismissal of the importance of free trade (he’s an old-hand at dismissing international obligations in this area), Chairman Peterson offered this:

Peterson said he did not think pressures to comply with trade agreements would be too much of a problem in the farm bill because “the trade situation is dead in the water,” and negotiators realize they cannot get approval from Congress if agriculture is not satisfied. “We’ve got some power over that system,” he said.

“I am not going to turn myself into a pretzel to accommodate this latest trade agreement,” he said.

A disappointing start to the 2012 Farm Bill fight, to be sure, but my hope is not dashed. With any luck, the recent signs of voters’ disgust with Washington will translate into some extra political support for those of us working for real reform. (see examples here and here.)