In an almost endless stream of post-vote analyses Jan. 2, Capitol Hill pundits focused mostly on who the political winners and losers were in the Christmas-to-New Year's Grinch-vs.-Grinch brawl to “save” the nation from a “fiscal cliff.”
That's to be expected because it's a lot more fun to read about sandbox fights between 7-year-olds than reason-driven debates among well-educated adults. Lost in the holiday ugliness, however, was the failure of Congress to pass a 2012 Farm Bill.
Sure, America was saved from the “dairy cliff” but you and I should not have been on any cliff to begin with. We were placed there by politicians playing a can't-win game of I-win, you-lose politics. How this played out for farmers and ranchers is both informative and instructive.
Farm Bills used to be simple; not so in 2012. When the House Ag Committee, the historic leader in Farm Bill writing, blew through 2011 without action, its counterpart, the Senate Ag Committee, took over. To its members' credit, a “reform” Farm Bill – that contained little real reform – passed the Senate in a bipartisan 64-35 late-June vote.
That vote, however, held trouble. Four Senate Republican Ag Committee members were among the 35 nays. Southerners all, they preferred a bill titled more toward rice and cotton than the currently-favored corn and soybeans.
That geographic split was – is – common in Farm Bills. What was uncommon about these four, however, was that one was – is – Kentucky's Mitch McConnell, the Senate's Republican leader. A few eyebrows were raised when the party's boss voted against a clearly bipartisan Farm Bill.
House Ag Committee members completed their bill in late July; it, too, packed trouble despite a commanding 35-11 bipartisan committee vote. That trouble became evident when Speaker of the House John Boehner slipped the Committee's bill into his suit jacket and went home. He later returned; the bill never did.
Boehner's refusal to bring the Farm Bill to the floor for an up-or-down vote has been explained several ways. The most common is that the bill's $16.5 billion cut in 10-year food stamp spending wasn't enough for many in his party's tea drinking wing, so he simply sat on the bill while waiting for a better path for it to pass.
The explanation has merit. After all, cutting $16.5 billion out of more than $750 billion of food assistance spending in the coming decade hardly seems like any cut.
Another explanation is that the bill's dairy reforms, also contained in the Senate bill, rankled Boehner. No one knows if this son of greater Cincinnati understands dairy policy – it'd be news if he did – but everyone on Capitol Hill knows that dairy processors hated the changes. Boehner, in turn, took to calling the pending dairy policy “socialism” and “Soviet-style central planning.”
Boehner and McConnell's differences with each bill would hardly be noteworthy if not for the key role each would play in the fiscal cliff talks.
Boehner's hard effort to meet White House demands stumbled when he went back to his Republican caucus to take their temperature on a nearly-completed “big deal” the week before Christmas. He got his head handed to him when GOP tea party members held their hard line against any new taxes.
Poetically, perhaps, most of those no-new-tax House members were the very same rural and Ag Committee members who earlier had demanded a vote on a Farm Bill. Speaker Boehner had denied them because he thought it far-too-rich. Now they denied him.
That put the burden of negotiating any fiscal cliff deal on Senate Republican leader McConnell. Recall he had voted openly, almost happily, against the Senate Farm Bill in June because it lacked cotton and rice price protection.
With that same bill as the working model for any fiscal cliff-Farm Bill-New Year's deal and McConnell as the chief GOP negotiator, no 2012 Farm Bill was the likely outcome and, to no one's surprise, no 2012 Farm Bill it now is.
Why any of this is surprise, however, is, well, a surprise. When the bottom line to any Congressional deal must include a political I-win, you-lose score, you and I will always lose because we're not politicians.
We're just Americans.