Tuesday, June 18, 2013
For half a century, a bipartisan bargain on agricultural policy worked well to balance the needs of urban and rural areas.
In the beginning, the federal government bought surplus commodities like cheese or canned chicken and distributed the items to people who needed help. In time, this was replaced with a more efficient program that gave recipients food stamps, which they could spend in grocery stores and farmers markets, boosting demand for farm products.
Rural lawmakers, who tended to represent farm interests, voted for the program. So did urban members of Congress who represented poorer districts. This was true regardless of which party controlled the White House and which party controlled Congress.
But we now live in an era where nothing seems to work.
Congress left for its recess without passing a farm bill. As a result, many programs have expired, including the Milk Income Loss Contract, landing a blow to Maine's 300 dairy farms, all of which are family owned. These farms employ 1,400 people and support work for 2,600 more in dairy processing plants, cheese companies and other businesses.
Leaving these farms without a safety net has rightly raised concerns of the LePage administration, and last week Agriculture Commissioner Walt Witcomb went to Washington to encourage the federal government to take action quickly, before some of these family farms go out of business.
All four members of Maine's congressional delegation have signed a letter asking their colleagues to act, but what they are running into is a partisan divide that threatens any kind of compromise.
Using anti-welfare rhetoric -- much like what we have heard from Witcomb's boss, Gov. LePage -- congressional Republicans have demanded cuts in food stamps, calling it wasteful spending even though it has long been seen as a popular and beneficial program. During a time of high unemployment and stagnant wages, food stamps are a good way to help people who need help and who will spend money in their communities, supporting jobs.
Coming out against food stamps may be a good election slogan, but it's lousy public policy and if members of Congress can't put the angry rhetoric aside after Election Day, they will hurt hard-working people, like Maine's dairy farmers.
There is a price to be paid for mindless partisanship and absolutism, especially in a form of government that is designed to work through compromise.