12 Angry Men

August 10, 2011

In the film classic, “12 Angry Men”, jurors deliberate the fate of an accused on trial, the outcome of which could mean life or death.

11 of the 12 walked into the jury deliberation room ready to return a guilty verdict without a discussion, some because of personal, long-held prejudices and others because they just didn’t care.

But one juror decides that too much is at stake and slowly but convincingly erodes confidence in the credibility of the evidence, despite the emotional, irrational objections of a few who castigate those who become open to the facts.

Finally, after one final fit of rage, the facts win over and the 12 jurors agree to an acquittal.

More than a half century later, another 12 will walk into a room to decide how to save $1.5 trillion over the next 10 years.  Some of these will enter the room with strong prejudices against U.S. farm policy, while others simply may not care.  Here is hoping that at least 1 of the 12 will have the sand to press the facts.

There is reason for both skepticism and hope.

Whatever controversies it stirred up, the grounds for skepticism are still best summed up in Standard & Poor’s press release concerning its decision to downgrade the United States’ credit rating:  “[T]he resulting agreement fell well short of the comprehensive fiscal consolidation program that some proponents had envisaged…the plan envisions only minor policy changes on Medicare and little change in other entitlements, the containment of which we and most other independent observers regard as key to long-term fiscal sustainability.”

S&P’s release noted that, under the agreement, the first tranche of cuts would come from a small sliver of spending dependent on annual appropriations, leaving the big ticket spending items for the super committee or sequestration to contend with this fall.  But, even here, there’s a large asterisk.  Under sequestration, which occurs if a super committee plan fails, the automatic across-the-board cuts are hardly across-the-board.  Exempt is every big ticket item in the budget:  Social Security, Medicaid, and even Medicare, except for two percent which would come out of the hides of providers if it ever comes to pass.

In fact, nearly all mandatory funding in the budget is exempt from cuts.  That is, except tiny farm policy, and a few other budgetary stepchildren.  Never mind that U.S. farm policy accounts for one quarter of one percent of the budget, has been cut $15 billion in the past six years, and has not only operated within budget but well under budget over the past 10 years.

The result, naturally, is that federal policies not fortunate enough to be exempted may shoulder a disproportionate burden of deficit reduction.  Some believe this fact will cause the super committee to succeed, with necessity being the mother of invention.  They point to the deep cuts in defense, for example, as the reason the committee must not fail.  But, still others see the super committee running into the same political realities that created the sequestration exemptions in the first place and say this may mean even greater burdens being put on federal policies outside of defense and the entitlement spending that politicians don’t want to touch.  They see a mini super committee package of cuts and a sequestration combo arising as a sort of belt and suspenders way of ensuring that Washington will not accidentally deal with the real issues behind our deficits and debt that caused the first-ever downgrading of our nation’s credit rating.

Here’s what it all means in numbers.  Although the Simpson-Bowles recommendations called for $10 billion in cuts to U.S. farm policy, reasoning that cuts should be proportional to the policy’s impact on the budget, sequestration would likely result in deeper cuts and the super committee even deeper cuts yet.  While some speculate that sequestration would result in as much as $15 billion in cuts, they say the super committee could latch onto the $33 billion in cuts eyed by the Biden group.  In the case of the latter, let there be no illusion:  this level of cuts will mean an end to U.S. farm policy with all of its implications for our economy and jobs and our food security.  Some may greet this with the same glibness with which they greeted defaulting on our debts and the downgrading of our credit.  But the results could be calamitous, as we saw in the 1980s farm financial crisis, with history suggesting it is only a matter of time.  That is why it is so important that a firm line be drawn that ensures stable U.S. farm policy.

So, what are the reasons to be hopeful?

Well, first and foremost, despite the hatchet job on U.S. farm policy and production agriculture, 66 percent of Americans say they oppose cuts to U.S. farm policy, according to a recent poll.  People from cities and suburbs are not so heartless as to watch the evening news and see record droughts and flooding and the suffering and disappointment of families just like theirs and not want to help.  In hard times, Americans have always and will always be there for those who feed, clothe, and fuel them and they will expect Congress to act.

Second, so far, while Congress has not given U.S. farm policy any special treatment, neither has Congress explicitly singled it out, yet.  The House debt ceiling position, which prevailed, included no cuts to farm policy in the first tranche of cuts, putting agriculture on technically equal footing with other mandatory funding policies as far as super committee action is concerned.  Meanwhile, although the Senate included cuts to agriculture in the first tranche, at least they were limited to roughly what Simpson-Bowles had recommended rather than the treble cuts eyed by the Biden plan and Rep. Paul Ryan’s budget.  In the same way, in its consideration of H.R. 1, wrapping up FY2011 appropriations, and the agriculture appropriations bill for FY2012, the House by and large turned back efforts to single out farm policy for irresponsible policy proposals and cuts.

No doubt, each of these victories came thanks to key lawmakers who took their jobs seriously, who are able to measure the importance of agriculture to the U.S. economy and jobs, the need for policies that help U.S. producers deal with risks ranging from drought to distorted global markets, and farm policy’s very low taxpayer cost.

These lawmakers point to the farm financial crises of the 1980s and 1990s and warn that without sound farm policy in place, producers, the overall economy, and taxpayers alike will pay a price.

Or, as in the case of one conscientious juror in “12 Angry Men,” these lawmakers will patiently but persistently point to the pitfalls of rushing to judgment and hope that the facts sink in.

About the Author: Larry Combest, a Republican from West Texas, served in the U.S. House of Representatives for nearly 20 years, including as Chairman of the Select Committee on Intelligence and the Committee on Agriculture.

This article originally appeared on Agri-Pulse.com on August 8, 2011.