Is it Time to Get Rid of the Agricultural Committees?
We don't have a House Committee on Dollar Stores. Nor does the Senate have a committee exclusively for People Who Write Poems. There's no Producers of Consumer Electronics Committee, or Senate Select Committee on People Who Sell Thomas Kinkaid Paintings.
The only industry that gets a committee -- and, indeed, an executive branch agency -- all to itself is the agricultural industry. There was a time in American history when that made some sense. In 1862, the year Abraham Lincoln founded the Department of Agriculture, farm products made up 82 percent of American exports. The agricultural industry was one of the country's most important employers. And in an age of wars, famines, and general instability, there was a direct government interest in keeping an eye on food producers.
But that went the way of powdered wigs and, well, sharecropping. In 2007, agricultural products weren't one of our Top 12 exports (and, interestingly, the top 12 exports combined only amounted to 38 percent of total U.S. exports; a far cry from the 82 percent that agriculture once controlled). Nor was agriculture one of our top 10 employers.
As agriculture has grown less visible in our economy, so too have the committees that control it. And so they've become playgrounds for special interests. They are stocked with congressmen from agricultural districts who want to secure their seats by bringing home hefty subsidies to local producers (as one congressman said to me, "who in the world would actually want to be on the Agricultural Committee?"). They are watched almost exclusively by agricultural producers. Agricultural producers aren't, of course, the only special interest that tries to curry favor with Congress, but they're the only special interest that's been given a committee from which to do it. It's quite a gift.
And we're reaping the rewards on the climate bill. As Steven Pearlstein documents, the House Agricultural Committee has held up cap-and-trade until they could extract a truly mind-boggling array of tax breaks, exemptions, and straight subsidies. While the rest of us are preparing to pay more to save the planet, they're swearing they'll let the world burn if we don't bribe them and bribe them and bribe them again. And the only reason they can do that is because they have a committee, with all of the procedural power that confers.
Maybe it's time they didn't.
Photo credit: Charlie Litchfield -- Associated Press.
June 26, 2009; 11:32 AM ET
Categories: Climate Change , Food
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