One of the clearest memories I have as a second-grade student is looking north from my classroom windows nearly every day to see fellow second graders, Ricky W. and his sister, Regina, running to school, late as usual, with their arms, feet, and homework flying.
I also remember the two were usually met at the classroom door by our teacher, Mrs. K., and her wooden paddle. Most days Mrs. K. would lay into them like an Old Testament judge before they even got their coats off. Other times she’d smack the back of their hands with her long hickory pointer as punishment for being tardy.
One morning, Mrs. K. pummeled Regina, who we’d recognize today as a special needs child, so hard that the little girl, crying and shuddering in fear, went to her desk, sat down, and silently wet the floor.
The repeated punishments never made the two arrive on time. They were seven years old and no child that age is responsible for getting to school on time. Worse, they were doing their very best — they were running as fast as they could — knowing that a beating awaited them despite their effort.
Those dispiriting memories came to mind as I spoke with Capitol Hill staffers about the hell-or-high-water, 2018 Farm Bill offered by House Ag Committee Republicans. No one, on either side of the debate, could explain why Chairman Mike Conaway insisted on offering a purely partisan bill loaded with short-term policy choices that will speed America’s rural decline, hasten farm and ranch consolidation, and endanger the nation’s greatest assets: its air, soil, and water.
The bill’s most controversial elements — restrictive changes to the nation’s biggest nutrition assistance program, SNAP, and the virtual elimination of restrictions on who or how much federal program payments anyone may receive — are more than incendiary to Committee Democrats. They are pure poison.
So why did Conaway deliver such a lopsided bill? It’s a mystery, said one well-placed Farm Bill watcher speaking on background. Republican and Democratic staff members worked very hard to find some middle ground, the person explained; then the boss just tossed it all aside to go with a bill that few on either side see as wise.
Ranking Member, Minnesotan Collin Peterson — who helped deliver a “middle ground” Farm Bill in 2014 after almost two years of similar SNAP attacks — took to the radio waves April 16 to declare that “you can’t fix a bad bill.”
By that, Peterson explained, he has no plans to offer even one amendment to Conaway’s draft that might soften its sweeping changes to food assistance programs, reinstate hard caps on program payments, and limit the bill’s “multiple entities” which allow everyone but the farm dog to belly up to the government subsidy trough.
“I’m not gonna trust one damn thing they” — House Ag Republicans — “say from now on…” Peterson said. “I’m done.”
Conaway’s bill is, too, but with a few uncertainties. Although the Texan pushed his bill through the committee with only GOP votes, he now faces getting it through a deeply fractured House. It won’t be easy because several conservative lobbies, like the Heritage Foundation, have vowed to fight it.
Even if the Conaway bill gets out of the House, an increasingly tall order, it’s not likely to get into the Senate. On April 12, Senate Ag Committee leaders, Chairman Pat Roberts from Kansas and ranking member Debbie Stabenow from Michigan, took the unusual step of releasing a joint statement condemning the partisan process that delivered the House bill.
“We continue to be committed to working on a Farm Bill for all farmers and families,” began the statement, and are “… working together as quickly as possible to produce a bipartisan bill…”
Despite that near-certain Senate wall, House Chairman Conaway said his bill would be “marked up,” or debated, in his Committee and, when passed, be “whipped” — sold to members — for a full House vote in May.
Conaway, like Mrs. K., has the might to whip anything anytime. Doing so, however, doesn’t mean he’s right. Some of us learned that in the second grade.