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Is it Time to Get Rid of the Agricultural Committees?

PH2009062504308.jpg

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.

By Ezra Klein  |  June 26, 2009; 11:32 AM ET
Categories:  Climate Change , Food  
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Comments

"nor does the senate have a committee exclusively for People who Write Poems."

"Reader, suppose you were an idiot. And suppose you were a member of Congress. But i repeat myself."

~~mark twain

"This country has come to feel the same when Congress is in session, as when the baby gets hold of a hammer."

~~will rogers

Posted by: jkaren | June 26, 2009 12:21 PM | Report abuse

I think that Matt Yglesias makes a pretty solid argument that the Armed Services committees may not *exclusively* serve teh defense industry, but seem to *primarily* do so. http://yglesias.thinkprogress.org/archives/2009/06/the-hills-committee-disaster.php

Posted by: ohiotodc815 | June 26, 2009 12:23 PM | Report abuse

Make it a subcommittee of commerce. Agriculture is an important area for economic and national security reasons (I don't want to be starved out because of my government's unpopularity). But, I also don't want representatives of 5% of the US population (farm state reps) scuttling progressive reforms using its full committee status. Of course, this is only one of many reforms that will never happen because congress is such a stagnant backwater when it comes to institutional change.

Posted by: srw3 | June 26, 2009 12:24 PM | Report abuse

I don't think this is a fair argument.

If dollar stores go out of business, no one dies. If poetry doesn't get written, no one suffers.

But if the agricultural industry as a whole goes under, or doesn't produce enough food, people starve. This is true whether it's 90% or .09% of the economy. So we do have a vested interest as a society in the agricultural industry.

Food production has been a government matter since the dawn of agriculture, and for good reason. The economic incentives are a bit screwy, and agriculture has long needed some form of central management to save surpluses in good years such that we can use them to ride out deficits in bad years.

That said, our food policies are all kinds of screwed up, and the agricultural committees do seem to exist entirely to serve the interests of food producers rather than the citizens who depend upon those food producers. It's certainly something that needs to be reformed. But it's still an economic sector that's altogether different from other consumer goods.

Posted by: ejp1082 | June 26, 2009 1:02 PM | Report abuse

I like srw3's solution: ag as sub-committee to Commerce (or something).

But ain't gonna happen. Too many Senators who would have a hissy fit (and not just from the midwest farm belt - OR, CA, WA, NJ, VA, etc.)

Posted by: JimPortlandOR | June 26, 2009 1:06 PM | Report abuse

Oh how soon we forget. 1968, not that long ago: ""There are children in the Mississippi Delta," he [RFK] said, "whose bellies are swollen with hunger ... Many of them cannot go to school because they have no clothes or shoes. These conditions are not confined to rural Mississippi. They exist in dark tenements in Washington, D.C., within sight of the Capitol, in Harlem, in South Side Chicago, in Watts."

That's only 40 years ago. Our food industry, for all its ills, has conquered hunger for the first time in, well, forever. No one in the US starves, no one goes hungry. It is the luxury of our times that we can have well-fed yuppies in DC lamenting how we have too much food. Starvation was real as recently as the 1970's. A large reason it is not anymore is the much maligned food industry. Better to not forget that.

Posted by: sgaliger | June 26, 2009 1:22 PM | Report abuse

This is just to say
that there should be a committee
formed to advance the selling
of Thomas Kinkade paintings

Posted by: stimb | June 26, 2009 1:49 PM | Report abuse

Far less important than the climate bill, but it should be noted that turf issues with the agricultural committees are likely the only reason why the Administration did not propose merging the SEC and CFTC as part of its financial services reform package. Turf issues aside, this a no-brainer.

Posted by: Craig643 | June 26, 2009 2:01 PM | Report abuse

Are you serious? Do you not have enough knowledge about the Congress and how it works in terms of how standing committees are typically structured so that they have jurisdiction and oversight of executive branch departments? Are you suggesting then that we also get rid of the Department of Agriculture? That sounds a lot like a conservative Republicans' argument - or do you not remember when the Republicans wanted to get rid of the Department of Education?

And btw - do you realize that agriculture is one of the largest industries in CALIFORNIA - yes, that liberal state exports more agricultural products than it does Hollywood products.

Posted by: Lbrown | June 26, 2009 4:12 PM | Report abuse

In the instance of climate change, I don't think that the power to block the bill stemmed from the committee system. Pelosi had it in her power to not send the bill to the Ag Committee. But the Chairman of the Committee had enough votes to block the bill _on the house floor_. So a "House Caucus on Funneling Money to Rural Districts" would have been just as effective at holding up climate legislation as the members of the Ag Committee.

Posted by: mike777 | June 26, 2009 4:28 PM | Report abuse

Lbrown is basically correct to point out that the committees reflect the executive departmental structure.

The UK went from having a separate agriculture department to one that combined ag, food safety, the environment and rural affairs. That's an easier conflation in a small, relatively homogenous nation (in geographical terms).

France retains a separate agriculture ministry, and I think that reflects the same situation as the US, albeit with different dynamics: French farmers can make life very difficult for its government, and Big Ag in the US has the same clout.

Posted by: pseudonymousinnc | June 27, 2009 2:16 AM | Report abuse

Maybe farmers should just stop feeding America, then you would see the value of an agriculture committee, Mr Klein. Also, one important fact you failed to mention, farmers do not set the price they receive for their products, they are price takers. This is why there is a subsidy for agriculture, so farmers can't price their products for what they are worth. If they did, your food would cost you twice as much as it does now. Subsidy payments only go to farmers who raise crops, not livestock, and they only help bring farmers up to a break even point. Livestock farmers are left out completely, when they lose money, they really lose money, no one helps them out. When farmers are having good years, there are no subsidies paid to them. Did I forget to mention agriculture is dependent on the weather cooperating, which is out of their control? Over 72% of the farm bill goes to food stamps, WIC and school lunches. Less than 13% goes to farmers in direct payments for losses on their crops. The remaining portion of the farm bill goes to conservation programs to preserve the environment. So, do away with the ag committee, who will feed all the families on food stamps and WIC? Not the farmers in America.

Posted by: piscesgirl | July 1, 2009 10:17 AM | Report abuse

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