In Our View: Frustrating Politics

Farm bill debate is example of howthe public often is the loser

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Two newsworthy events of the past week combined to highlight one of the reasons Americans are frustrated with Congress.

To start with, Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., made an appearance in Vancouver and trumpeted the need for Washington, D.C., lawmakers to pass a farm bill. "To me, the issue is the incredible economic opportunity at our doorstep," Cantwell said, pointing out that agriculture is the state's largest industry and that its $40 billion in annual revenue represents about 12 percent of the state's economy.

Undoubtedly, agriculture is crucial to the vitality of Washington. To highlight the importance of the farm bill to Washingtonians, Kevin Moffitt, president and CEO of Pear Bureau Northwest, said the bill's export assistance program helps growers deliver their products to where the demand is, particularly to burgeoning markets in Asia.

From a provincial viewpoint, an updated farm bill is important, but Congress has been wrangling over a new bill for two years with little sign of compromise. A bill approved June 10 by the Democrat-controlled Senate would cost $955 billion over the course of a decade. A plan approved in July by the Republican-controlled House would cost $196 billion over a decade.

Bridging a gap of more than $700 billion sounds about as likely as jumping over the Grand Canyon. Which leads to a question: Why is the gulf so wide?

The answer can be explained, in part, by a second news story from recent days. Tom Foley -- an 84-year-old Spokane native who served as Speaker of the House from 1989-95 -- is in poor health, which has led his friends and supporters to recall his accomplishments during 30 years in Congress.

While being lauded for his ability to strike bipartisan compromise, Foley has been noted for combining previous versions of the farm bill with the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, commonly known as food stamps. Representatives from rural districts would support the bill because of the agricultural supplements contained within; representatives from urban districts would get on board because of the funding for food stamps.

Never mind that the two issues have nothing to do with each other. It was a win-win. Except, perhaps, for taxpayers.

All of which is relevant as Congress considers the latest version of a farm bill. The Republican-led House is balking at the notion that such a bill should include funding for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, and it is difficult to argue against that point. Members of the House are looking to cut spending on food stamps, and they are adamant that the entitlement has nothing to do with support for agriculture.

On the other hand, the issue provides a lesson in the type of gridlock that currently has Congress so ineffectual and currently has taxpayers so frustrated. And it provides a lesson on a fact of politics that is distasteful. For generations, Congress has operated under an ethos of, "You scratch my back, I'll scratch yours," often at the expense of taxpayers.

Cantwell, to her credit, stressed the importance of the farm bill during her appearance in Vancouver while sidestepping a discussion about the political wrangling that has stalled the bill in Washington.

But the discussion must be held, and it must be held soon. If Congress cannot pass an extension of the farm bill by Sept. 30, Cantwell said, the nation would revert to farm policies formulated in 1949. To avoid that, however, they might need to sell the public on the need to have a farm bill and food stamps combined in the same legislation. It's a tough sell.