THE BLOG
12/31/2011 11:02 EST | Updated 03/01/2012 05:12 EST

What the U.S. Farm Bill Says About American Politics

I find the partisan and visceral nature of U.S. politics somewhat uncomfortable, just because of its personal nature and the way in which it limits dialogue into such dichotomous blocs. But it's hard to escape the observation that in so-doing, politics in the U.S. has a transparent character to it.

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Having been given a unique opportunity by the U.S. government to travel and have access to policy makers, researchers and industry in the U.S. at such a remarkable time in U.S. history provides an interesting set of observations. The Farm Bill debate in the U.S. is moving in real time, but it is a very different process than has occurred previously.

The "debate" typically anticipated in the crafting of a U.S. Farm Bill is mostly missing, as the discussions are mostly limited to closed-door committee discussions, which is itself an extension of the broader budgetary process being conducted by the congressional "super committee," also in a mostly closed-door process.

The rationale for this Farm Bill process is the fear that unless agriculture and food interests have a plan to shave $12-13 billion from their budget in a manner of their choosing, they will be subject to what amounts to pro-rata cuts in the existing program set. It also gives some (limited) scope to congressional leaders to craft new programs that replace old instruments that will be cut. The best example is the idea of "revenue assurance" or "shallow loss" programs that would mitigate the likely loss of direct payments.

It is a fair assessment from our discussions that not everyone views this as an appropriate process, both within and outside government. Some see the Farm Bill as being crafted far too quickly by too few to be representative or credible; regional interests differ sharply. Others will go further and question the super committee process and ask why the entire congress can't be involved. There is also skepticism regarding the incessant ability for the process to set publicly announced "deadlines" which are only later renegotiated. Some with whom we have spoken give the process a 50 per cent chance, or less, of success.

This leads to a broader observation on contemporary political culture in the U.S. On one hand, it appears every bit as polarized along party lines as Canadian viewers of U.S. television news would expect. But at the same time, there is a sense that some Americans wake up one morning and find themselves looking at a government they don't recognize -- thus the link between the Tea Party Republicans and the Occupy Wall Street movement. Both seem to be movements that are more about rejection of the nature and scope of government than explicitly ideological -- although the message is mixed, and comes from different perspectives. Both appear to have traction.

Finally, I find the partisan and visceral nature of U.S. politics somewhat uncomfortable, just because of its personal nature and the way in which it limits dialogue into such dichotomous blocs. But it's hard to escape the observation that in so-doing, politics in the U.S. has a transparent character to it. I have to admit that to the extent that our politics may be less acutely partisan and visceral, many of the same types of decisions ultimately get made -- perhaps just in a more polite way. That's a polite way of saying that Canadian political culture may be less transparent than that in the U.S.