Last Friday the House passed a 741-page Farm Bill, largely keeping intact the existing system of subsidies for commercial farmers while adding billions of dollars for conservation, nutrition, and new agricultural sectors. While Democratic leaders will call this a success, the bill demonstrates the brokenness of our politics in which the common good is so often sacrificed to political expediency and powerful corporate interests.
The Farm Bill is a massive, complicated piece of legislation that addresses everything from nutrition programs to commodity subsidies to rural development. It symbolizes the crisis facing American farmers, who are captive to a rhetoric-filled battle over how best to preserve their livelihoods. However, rather than protecting the livelihoods of small farmers, this current bill goes to even greater lengths to provide a form of corporate welfare to large commercial farms and agribusinesses.
Late Friday morning, House lawmakers defeated an amendment sponsored by Representatives Kind (D-Wis.) and Flake (R-Ariz.), which provided desperately needed reforms to this deeply flawed bill. The Kind/Flake Amendment would have made crucial reforms by denying subsidies to large commercial farmers with an average adjusted gross income greater than $500,000 and limiting annual subsidies to $250,000 per person. The savings would be redirected to fight hunger, protect the environment, and help poor farmers.
Instead, billions of dollars of price support subsidies will go to commodities such as wheat, soybeans, and cotton, resulting in one of the greatest heresies in the religion of free trade, let alone fair trade. These subsidies lead to overproduction and distort prices on the international market, making it almost impossible for poor farmers across the developing world to compete and earn their way out of poverty. Ironically, the interests of the small cotton farmer in South Carolina are much more aligned with poor farmers in Africa than with the agribusinesses and large commercial farms that keep winning the lion’s share of Farm Bill benefits.
In order to win sufficient support, the Agriculture Committee loaded the bill with billions of dollars for nutrition programs, conservation, black farmers, and Florida and California fruit and vegetable industries. However, Democratic leaders were unwilling to defy corporate pressure and overhaul the corporate welfare of commodity subsidies.
The Farm Bill exposes a clash between the pragmatic politics of compromise and incremental change with the prophetic politics of the common good. Congress was caught between advocates for reform, including a broad faith-based coalition, and the heavily financed commercial farms whose power in 20 congressional districts dominates the debate. This outcome in the House illustrates the brokenness of a political process in which corporate interests too often drown out the voices of faith-based and civic advocates. It also demonstrates the urgent need to reclaim our democracy on behalf of the common good.
Prophets such as Amos, Isaiah, and Ezekiel didn’t mince words or withhold prophetic judgment when leaders advanced the interests of the strong over the welfare of the weak. With our pastoral side we can sympathize with elected officials who are trying to do the right thing—balancing the interests of multiple stakeholders while facing real and perceived constraints around what’s politically possible. However, our prophetic vocation calls us to hold elected officials to a higher standard and change the very parameters within which these policy decisions are made, one that privileges and protects the interests of the weak and dispossessed—in this case, small farmers at home and abroad.
Fortunately, the debate around the Farm Bill now moves to the Senate, giving us another chance to fight for the common good. But senators must believe there’s a real political cost to preserving the status quo, and the prophetic voice must overpower the voice of lobbyists representing commercial farms and agribusinesses.
Adam Taylor is director of campaigns and organizing for Sojourners/Call to Renewal.