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The Problem With the Ag Committees

Food policy advocates aren't too pleased about Sen. Blanche Lincoln's ascension to chairwoman of the Senate Agricultural Committee. Lobbyists, however, are. “We couldn’t have handpicked a chairman better than this," said Mary Kay Thatcher, director of public policy for the American Farm Bureau. Tom Laskawy sounds about ready to throw in the towel:

The only hope for reform, as I see it, is to take the favored GOP strategy and wait for the agribusiness over-reach — in other words, wait for a policy endorsed by the House and Senate ag committees that’s so extreme other congressional players decide they have no choice but to act. A hint of how this might work came in the House food safety bill, which the congressional leadership declined to submit officially to the House Ag Committee because they knew those committee members would tear it to pieces.

Is it possible that Lincoln and Rep. Collin Peterson — her counterpart in the House — can misbehave so badly that it finally causes normally lily-livered representatives on other House and Senate committees to take a stand against agribusiness? I have my doubts. But with agribusiness now as well positioned as they’ve ever been to get their way on the big issues facing food and agriculture, it’s pretty much all we’ve got.

As Laskawy admits, that doesn't seem very likely. But the problems of the Agricultural Committee are less about Lincoln than the structural composition of her committee. The Agricultural Committees thrive in obscurity. So long as they remain obscure, their work will be aimed at lobbyists and stakeholders and the only politicians who join will be those who see a big upside in getting agricultural firms to favor their reelection campaigns.

That goes for the broader Congress, too. Food safety has some public resonance, but farm subsidies really don't. And so it's dominated by special interests. You either need more public involvement in these issues or some countervailing stakeholders. Or maybe both. Lincoln may be relatively worse on these issues than Sen. Tom Harkin was, but she can only be so bad because her committee primarily serves the lobbying community.

By Ezra Klein  |  September 15, 2009; 5:09 PM ET
Categories:  Food  
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Comments

Two words, my friend. Copy. Edit.

Posted by: karlpopper1 | September 15, 2009 6:00 PM | Report abuse

The two candidates for countervailing interests to the rural/agriculture types are fiscal conservatives and urban interests. The latter is neutralized, because food stamps are in USDA. So: "I'll support your stamps if you support my subsidy payments".

As for the first, the rural/agriculture types are the fiscal conservatives, so they just have a minute's worth of internal conflict before they decide that ag programs are worth a mass,...er, bending their fiscal principles.

Posted by: bharshaw | September 15, 2009 6:22 PM | Report abuse

Ezra fail

Posted by: zewebster | September 15, 2009 7:42 PM | Report abuse

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