How to Pass the Farm Bill: Make It About Anything but Farm Subsidies

Whether he’s talking about energy security, infrastructure, or nutrition, Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack has perfected the game of political distraction.
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Few people are paying attention to the farm bill currently making its way through Congress. Between the government shutdown, the technical flaws of Healthcare.gov, and the never-ending budget negotiations, Washington has plenty of political drama to divert its attention. As the House and Senate try to reconcile their views on the 1,000-page piece of legislation over the coming weeks, it seems that the Obama administration is taking advantage of this distraction to put some good, old-fashioned spin on the controversial topic of farm subsidies.

In an interview at the Washington Ideas Forum on Wednesday, Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack described a bill that’s about pretty much everything but the money the federal government gives to American farmers. People need to “understand the extraordinary opportunity this bill presents to grow the economy, to stabilize our energy security, to rebuild the infrastructure that’s important to rebuild in rural areas,” he said.

When described in that way, the bill sounds bipartisan and non-controversial. But Vilsack’s interviewer, Ruth Marcus, pointed out that political division that has perennially haunted this kind of legislation. “You’ve got two disparate interests: food stamps, now SNAP [the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program], that are essential to one constituency, and you’ve got a House bill that’s talking about cutting them by an astonishing amount,” Marcus said. And “you’ve got equally entrenched on the other side … ‘wasteful farm subsidies’ that you are trying to work with.”

When asked for his thoughts on reconciliation, Vilsack demurred. “The problem with what happens in Washington is that people get fixated on numbers,” he said. He went on to reframe the question to make it about jobs, arguing that everyone can support efforts to help people on food stamps get better employment. This was his approach throughout the interview—although he didn't talk about subsidies much, he pointed to a laundry list of potential long-term benefits from the bill, including the growth of alternative energy, more durable infrastructure, improved nutrition habits, and economic growth.

When he did briefly address farm subsidies, he framed it in terms of the fight over food stamps: Programs like SNAP face deep cuts in the legislation passed by House Republicans. “There is not a separation between the nutrition programs and the farm support programs," Vilsack said. "The nutrition programs are as much about the farm safety net as they are about helping struggling families, because they provide an opportunity for people to buy more at the grocery store, which helps to stabilize prices."

In other words, the administration sees food stamps as a subtle subsidy for farmers: If poor people have more money to buy food, farmers will be able to sell more food. Considering the bad reputation farm subsidies have gotten over the past two decades, perhaps this seems like the most palatable way to talk about subsidies—and sidestep all of the political controversy they involve.

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Emma Green is an associate editor at The Atlantic.

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