Reality Shrugged?

April 7, 2011

WASHINGTON (April 4, 2011)— In his December 1957 National Review column, “Big Sister Is Watching You,” Whittaker Chambers tore apart Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged for a lot of reasons, many of which remind me of today’s critics of U.S. farm policy.

For instance, Chambers said that Rand “deals wholly in the blackest blacks and the whitest whites . . . everything, everybody, is either all good or all bad, without any of those intermediate shades which, in life, complicate reality and perplex the eye that seeks to probe it truly.”

Chambers’ point was that through her extremes, Rand was not painting a realistic picture but creating a fairy tale.

Now, in the case of farm policy, when is the last time one read a major U.S. newspaper that thoughtfully editorialized with any semblance of balance in regards to this issue? When was the last time one saw an op-ed in one of these papers penned by a farm policy proponent that might offer readers a different perspective? It’s been a long time and it does make one wonder whether editorial boards are confident in their opinions and question the accuracy of what we read daily on so many matters of such great importance.

Instead, what one does see consistently on matters of farm policy, at least, is a serial rehashing of talking points (often just printed verbatim) of an environmental group long ago dismissed by everyone who knows of its work for its disreputable tactics even more than its repudiated policies.

In fact, the only favorable reports one reads anymore about agriculture in these big city papers is in the news or business sections where it is frequently observed, just as it was in the last recession, how agriculture is about the only sector driving economic recovery, creating jobs, and contributing positively to our balance of trade.

With all this as a backdrop, and despite excellent and ongoing efforts to inform and educate them, I am concerned that it may very well take a farm financial crisis and its effects to cascade across the U.S. economy before the eyes of major editorial boards are finally opened to the “intermediate shades” of farm policy, as Chambers might have put it; that is to say, to see that farm policy as currently constituted may not be all good and it is certainly not all bad, but it is necessary.

Perhaps more immediate and important, however, let us hope that this Randian defect of big city editorial pages doesn’t infect lawmakers who, after all, can’t just grudgingly correct a big mistake with a small print retraction. On this point, we may soon find out, for on Tuesday the House Budget Committee will unveil its proposed 2012 budget resolution.

The question is what the Committee will do to farm policy. The Committee could gut it, as the Washington Post urges. The Committee could also adopt the Debt Commission chairs’ recommendations for $10B in cuts. Or the Committee could acknowledge that over the course of six years, agriculture has already been singled out for cuts totaling $5B more than the Debt Commission chairs recommended and conclude that it may be time for others to join in.

For his part, Senate Budget Committee Chairman Kent Conrad, D-N.D., has already taken a stance. While perhaps the most equitable, the last option, above, may not be possible from his perspective given the current fiscal mess we are in. And, the Chairman would, no doubt, reject the first option as reckless.

After all, Senator Conrad was elected in the midst of, and in part due to, the 1980s farm financial crisis. The 1985 Farm Bill, written prior to his service in the Senate, proved too weak to prevent the economic havoc that was spreading to the cities. Ultimately, President Reagan stepped in to stop the hemorrhaging. Of course, it wasn’t the first time this scenario played out in the agriculture economy, and it will not be the last. But, it suffices to say that anyone who went through that time, as the Chairman of the Senate Budget Committee and I both did, remembers it and knows from personal experience that it is fiscally and economically imprudent to cut farm policy to the point where it is not equipped to handle a crisis.

Based on their comments, joining Senator Conrad in this assessment is Senator Chambliss, R-Ga., (one of the leaders of the “Gang of Six,” a group of senators seriously committed to a comprehensive and bipartisan agreement on deficit reduction) as well as Senators Pat Roberts, R-Kan., and Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., and Representatives Frank Lucas, R-Okla., and Collin Peterson, D-Minn. As strongly committed to farm policy as each of these Members is rightly known to be, not one of them is asking that agriculture be given a walk on deficit reduction. Instead, what each of these Members has asked is that colleagues consider, alongside farm policy’s positive budget story, the lessons of history.

Now, I don’t want to overstate the importance of the House Budget Resolution. It may not be the document governing the 2012 Farm Bill given that that Farm Bill is not expected to be written in the House till sometime next year. Moreover, Chairman Conrad is an equal partner in the congressional budget process and he will have something to say about the budget numbers that bind any Farm Bill sent to the President for signature. And, despite the President’s proposed cuts to agriculture, Secretary Vilsack has also rightly indicated that agriculture has already met Debt Commission chair recommendations.

But, if it goes to extremes in proposing deep cuts to farm policy that ignore those “intermediate shades” made clearer through the lens of history, we already know what the result will be: Washington will spend double the money it had been budgeted in order to address a crisis that should have never happened and could have been avoided had realistic policy been in place.

In short, like Atlas Shrugged, the budget resolution will be a fairy tale, only with slightly better prose and no 10th graders eager to read it.

About the author: Larry Combest, a Republican of West Texas, served in the U.S. House of Representatives from 1985-2002 where he chaired the Intelligence and Agriculture Committees.

This article first appeared in Agri-Pulse on Monday, April 4, 2011.