If you want to know why passing congressional legislation has gotten so difficult, here are two numbers to remember: five and 532. They illustrate a great deal about Congress today.
When I served in the House decades ago and the “farm bill” came up, stitching a successful piece of legislation together depended on getting five organizations to find common ground. They included groups like the national Farm Bureau and the Farmers Union, and our task was clear: get them to agree on what the bill ought to look like, and we had a measure that could pass.
This year, Congress is struggling to get a farm bill through. After the House of Representatives sent the first version down to defeat, no fewer than 532 organizations signed a letter to Speaker John Boehner asking him to bring a bill back to the floor as soon as possible. The array of groups was striking. The Farm Bureau signed on, but so did avocado growers and peach canners, beekeepers and archers, conservationists of all sorts, and huge businesses like Agri-Mark.
In essence, the big umbrella groups have broken into different constituent interests, with peanut growers and sheep ranchers and specialty-crop growers all pursuing their particular goals. Sometimes it feels like there’s a constituency for every commodity — and on such broader issues as biofuels, rural development and international trade. What used to require bringing together a handful of constituencies now demands horse-trading among hundreds.
Not every major piece of legislation before Congress is so complicated, but the farm bill is a perfect example of how tough it has become to get a major bill through, with so many competing interests and so much money at stake. Everything on Capitol Hill’s plate this year — from immigration reform to gun control to the upcoming debt ceiling fight — requires legislative language that a wide array of interest groups can agree to. This would be daunting but attainable if Congress operated the way it once did. But it doesn’t.
For what the farm bill’s travails also illustrate is that Congress is now a legislatively challenged institution. The leaders on the Hill have fewer tools of persuasion than they once did. They abolished “earmarks,” so they can no longer promise a bridge or a road to secure a member’s vote, and they carry less respect and political clout. The political parties that once helped enforce discipline can no longer do so, since politicians these days often identify themselves with outside groups like the tea party rather than with their political party. With the rise of Super PACs, neither congressional leaders nor political parties have as much influence over fundraising — and hence the “loyalty” it once imposed — as they used to.
To make matters worse, many members — especially in the Republican Party, though it’s not limited to the GOP’s side of the aisle — do not like to compromise. As I suggested at the beginning, compromise is at the heart of the farm bill. For the last 50 years, it’s been put together by joining crop support and nutrition support — food stamps — in order to win the votes of both rural and urban lawmakers. And within the rural sections of the bill, wheeling and dealing on the specifics has been the only way to generate legislation that farm-state legislators could all agree upon. Now that formula is broken, though I do believe an accommodation will be worked out.
But the problems go beyond that, and it’s not bad that the usual inertia on the farm bill has found difficult going. The country needs to confront basic questions about the $16 billion annual subsidy and heavy trade protection accorded to agriculture — when fewer than 1 percent of Americans are farmers and farming has become a hugely corporate industry. Likewise, with one in six Americans now receiving food stamps, we need a real debate about the food stamp program, which makes up 80 percent of the cost of the bill.
In other words, we’re not getting what we actually need, which is a real policy debate on the role of the government in agriculture. If Congress were working properly, this might have been possible. Increasingly, I fear it’s beyond Capitol Hill’s reach.