The Farm Bill: gerrymandered for failure

LOGO-snapThe U.S. House of Representatives took up rancorous debate and passed yesterday its version of the Farm Bill (which is actually the Food, Conservation and Energy Act), that gargantuan piece of legislation renewed every five years (this version has been haggled for nearly two) that’s packed full of agricultural subsidies, food policy tweaks and… food stamp funding—called SNAP, Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.

It’s SNAP that’s caused palpitations among Republicans in the House, which hold the majority, so much so that SNAP was carved from its version of the Farm Bill (the Senate version remains comprehensive, and earned bi-partisan votes). The House’s track is profoundly stupid.
Not to worry. This isn’t a rant on Hunger in America (For a great summary on the House vote’s impact on hunger in America, read The Atlantic’s Corby Kummer’s piece here). Further, set aside the “Big Ag = Bad” argument, and the fact that the Farm Bill is beyond comprehension and doesn’t have much in it to support the farmers that grow us healthy food. This post is about ground-level politics.

The House Farm Bill antics are a perfect example of why we need political reform not only in campaign financing, but in ending gerrymandered political districts.

With the financing, most people know the massive, corrupting problem—exacerbated by the Supreme Court’s Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission decision: gobs of money by a select few individuals or corporations impacting the electoral process.
It’s gerrymandering that’s also finally grabbing the spotlight, receiving attention in 2010 when Tea Party candidates swept in to join a Republican-majority House of Representatives, and again in 2012, when 1.4 million more votes were cast for Democratic House candidates than Republican, yet Republicans maintained control of the House by a 234 to 201 margin.

In short, gerrymandering is a process used by politicians to establish voting districts for political gain. Redrawing districts are necessary as populations shift from one area to another, and everyone knew that there was some eye to establishing political advantage—and in some cases, particularly in the South, there was (and is) abuse, such as isolating racial minorities.

But as more money has been dumped into politics in recent years, the practice has been severely abused to carve out political districts to accomplish only two things: protect or not protect incumbent politicians. Boundaries aren’t based on any logic or balance. They are Etch-A-Sketch-ed on partisan lines.

Republicans have been very good at this, a practice helped by holding the majority of governor positions (30 to 19 at last count, with one independent), which, if the party controls one body of the state’s legislature, means control of redistricting.

Thus the impact on the House of Representatives has been dramatic—most notably in 2010 when those Tea Party candidates and other conservatives swept out many moderate Republicans and some Democrats.

This isn’t intended to be a political screed, although some might be reading it as such. What’s typed above is simply fact. And, Democratic leaders aren’t guiltless. They are digging their hands more deeply into the practice, especially since moderate partners on the other side of the aisle have been bounced out of office or retire frustrated.

Where this redistricting power hurts the most openly is at the state level and, nationally, at the House. Those that run for statewide offices (senators and governors) generally have to be of moderate temperament—although that’s not always the case these days.

Those elected to represent political districts carved to a particular constituency can be the radical (see Michele Bachmann), or, more likely, those that simply lack historical context. That “historical context” is a biggie, though—it requires compassion and thought. And the Farm Bill is where the lack of those things hurt.

As flawed a document as the Farm Bill is, there was always the decades-long agreement between the representatives of rural districts and urban districts: The rural district reps wanted agricultural subsidies to help farmers, the urban reps wanted subsidies to help the urban poor buy food. Call it what you like, quid pro quo, horse trading—whatever. It was an agreement.

But now the traditionally bipartisan Food Bill has become politically charged by those who lack critical skills to form a comprehensive world view. Martin Stutzman, Republican Rep. from Indiana elected in that 2010 Tea Party wave, led the charge to break the long alliance. “It’s a simple idea: the farm bill should be about farm policy—not food stamps,” Stutzman tweeted last month.

That is incorrect. The flawed Farm Bill is very much about food stamps, because it’s very much about feeding people (albeit circuitously in our industrial model)—all people, rich and poor. The SNAP program feeds 46.2 million people, 92 percent of which are children, according to an April 2012 USDA report. That’s quite a sacrifice for Stutzman’s “simple idea.”

After yesterday’s vote, which came after a brutal debate with no Democrats and 12 Republicans opposing the measure, Stutzman gloated to The New York Times: “We wanted separation, and we got it. You’ve got to take these wins when you can get them.”

The U.S. political machine now fueled by larger piles of selective cash has led to a minority collection of elected extremists that can stop any meaningful, comprehensive legislation. With these types in office, debate ceases at our capitols, no exchange of ideas from the left and right occurs that could result in a reasonable compromise reached. Reform—and the Farm Bill needs it—becomes impossible. There are only stalemates, grandstanding and lousy legislation that further divides the country and increases apathy among the important moderates who are desperately needed at the polls.

That scenario was perfectly realized in the House of Representatives’ Farm Bill yesterday, a piece of legislation that affects every U.S. resident. Was it caused by gerrymandering? There were likely a few factors. But how electoral districts are drawn is a big one among them. Eleven states use non- or bi-partisan commissions who do not hold office to draw the boundaries. It’s an idea that should spread.

Mike Mitchelson is a longtime Twin Cities journalist, including a decade reporting on food, restaurants and agriculture. Follow him at @mlbmitch.

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