mark hertsgaard

Independent Journalist & Author


Memo to Congress: No Secret Farm Bill

The Nation, November 2, 2011, by Mark Hertsgaard:

Providing yet another reason for its 9 percent approval rating, Congress is attempting to write the nation’s next farm bill in secrecy—sneaking it into law as part of the deficit reduction package to be produced by the “supercommittee.”

This anti-democratic maneuvering could determine the shape of one of the most important—and controversial—pieces of legislation Congress considers, sometimes called the food bill because of its enormous influence over what Americans (especially children) eat, what food costs (here and overseas), whether our food is safe to eat and whether 45 million impoverished Americans (again, about half of them children) continue to receive food stamps. The bill also helps determine whether agriculture respects or pollutes our air, soil and water.

And the Farm Bill may not be the only law written behind closed doors and fast-tracked through the legisilative process, thanks to the supercommittee’s requirements. Ben Becker, a spokesman for the Senate Agriculture Committee, rejects accusations of undue secrecy in the new Farm Bill even as he emphasizes, “We didn’t choose this process. It was forced on all committees.”

Reauthorized every five years, the farm bill is due for reconsideration in 2012. Food movement activists had promised the strongest, most unified campaign yet to reform the legislation away from its emphasis on lavish subsidies for agribusiness and environmentally destructive practices and toward family farms and sustainable agriculture [see Dan Imhoff’s “Farm Bill 101”].

Writing the bill in secret and sneaking it into law would not only pre-empt citizen involvement and violate democratic norms, observes In Defense of Food author Michael Pollan; it would also squelch the prospects for reform. “So now what happens to an important proposal like The Local Farms, Food, and Jobs Act, introduced by Representative Chellie Pingree and Senator Sherrod Brown?” Pollan asked in an e-mail interview with The Nation. “Does it even get a hearing? The writing of agricultural policy in America has never been a shining example of democracy at work; now, it threatens to devolve into a travesty.”

The proposed new version of the farm bill was at press time to be submitted the first week of November. It was devised solely by the “gang of four,” the two chairs and two ranking members of the House and Senate Agriculture committees and submitted to the supercommittee in hopes that it will be included in the deficit reduction plan, due by Thanksgiving. There were no new committee hearings on the new farm bill recommendations, no markups or votes. And if the supercommittee accepts the bill as written, there will be no possibility of amending it on the House or Senate floor or of voting on it separately.

Representative Collin Peterson, the Minnesota Democrat who helped draft the bill, defends the fast-tracking of the farm bill on the grounds that it will produce a stronger result than if the supercommittee were to act on its own. In addition, interest groups were allowed to submit proposals for the gang of four to consider in drafting their bill.

But that’s not democracy, protests Ken Cook, head of the Environmental Working Group, an NGO that has embarrassed corporate farmers by publicizing how much taxpayer money they receive in crop subsidies, sometimes for land that hasn’t been farmed in years. “Sure, people are submitting ideas, but the [four] members of Congress sitting around that table are mainly there to represent the interests of Big Ag,” Cook told The Nation. “They have made it very clear their main interest is in protecting a subsidy program for industrial agriculture…. Meanwhile, they reportedly want to cut roughly $4 billion from the food stamps program over the next ten years, at a time of economic distress, when we have 45 million people on food stamps in this country.

“If these are truly great ideas, let’s discuss them openly,” Cook argues, adding that his organization is mobilizing its 1.1 million followers and other parts of the food movement to say, in the words of a new TV ad, No Secret Farm Bill.

“Either the supercommittee would in essence write the Farm Bill, with no hearings or public input, or the Agriculture Committee and the communities we represent would recommend reforms,” counters Becker. “Even in the short time we were provided to offer recommendations to the super-committtee, we have actively sought input from farm, conservation, nutrition and other stakeholders and are including their recommendations as we seek to reform the nation’s agriculture policy.”

“I agree with Mr. Becker that the process was imposed on the agriculture committees, but this process did not impose a directive to write an entire farm bill with no hearings…and no opportunity to amend it,” responds Cook, who adds, “We’re hearing from a lot more [food movement] groups now, such as the Center for Rural Affairs, Bread for the World and Taxpayers for Common Sense, who are also starting to sound the alarm. So we feel we’ll be able to let Congress know that this is not OK—to use a draconian budget cutting exercise to avoid a democratic consideration of our next farm bill and lock up these issues for the next five years, especially when there is so much energy and interest out in the country in reforming our food and farm policies.”

This article appeared in the November 21, 2011 edition of The Nation.



2 Responses to “Memo to Congress: No Secret Farm Bill”

  • jane warren says:

    Just read your column in Nation.l Are you aware that Bread for the World is a religious group ? Which makes me think they are pretty far to the right.

    • admin says:

      Thanks for reading my piece and taking the time to comment. Bread for the World is a humanitarian group that is informed by religious convictions. By no means does that make them right-wing, however; quite the contrary. It is a mistake to think that being religious necessarily means “right-wing.” There are many people and organizations of a religious bent that are very active indeed in progressive causes. Just look around.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Latest Book


By now, almost everyone knows what Edward Snowden did: leak top secret documents revealing that the US government was spying on hundreds of millions of people around the world. But if you want to know why Snowden did it, the way he did it, you need to know the stories of two other men.

The first is Thomas Drake, who blew the whistle on the very same surveillance ten years before Snowden did and got crushed. The other is The Third Man, a former senior Pentagon official who comes forward in this book for the first time to describe how his superiors repeatedly broke the law to punish Drake—and unwittingly taught Snowden how to evade their clutches.

Pick up your copy at: | Barnes & Noble

About Mark

Independent journalist Mark Hertsgaard is the author of seven books that have been translated into sixteen languages, including Bravehearts: Whistle Blowing in the Age of Snowden; HOT: Living Through the Next Fifty Years on Earth; and A Day in the Life: The Music and Artistry of the Beatles. He has reported from twenty-five countries about politics, culture and the environment for leading outlets, including The Guardian, Der Spiegel, Vanity Fair, The New Yorker, Time, Mother Jones, NPR, the BBC and The Nation, where is the environment correspondent. He lives in San Francisco.