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Political lessons from a cookie and the fiscal cliff

By Matt Reese

The other day, I was working at home and the children were finishing up their lunches. My wife was out running errands, so I was in charge of cleanup.

My son asked to be excused and then asked very politely if he could have a cookie.

“I’ll tell you what buddy,” I said. “If you help me clean up lunch, you can have a cookie.”

I grabbed a couple of dishes and took them to the sink and grinned as I heard the three-year-old scrambling to pick up his plate behind me. He must have really wanted a cookie. Then, however, I grew concerned as I heard water running from somewhere other than the kitchen sink where I was standing.

I dropped what I was doing and hurried around the corner to the bathroom to the source of the running water. I found that, within seconds, my well-intentioned son had dumped his half eaten plateful of deli turkey and cottage cheese down the drain of the bathroom sink (no garbage disposal in there). He then used his fork to stuff the contents of his plate down the drain.

As I stared down at the drain packed full of turkey and dairy products, I stopped to ponder the situation. Is it the thought that counts or the 20 minutes I spent trying to dig turkey out of the drain? Cookie or no cookie? Ultimately, my son did do exactly as instructed, so I gave him a cookie while making a mental note to myself to provide more precise instructions for such matters in the future. The cookie component of the message successfully got his attention, but the message was not simple and clear enough.

In many ways, dealing with the 112th Congress in 2012 was similar to this exchange with my three-year-old son. The message had to be very loud and very clear if there was any hope of a positive outcome. We saw a couple of examples of this with the passage of the Taxpayer Relief Act at the start of the New Year.

This last hour scramble from Congress included a nine-month partial farm bill extension. This farm bill failure took place despite an impressive and unified message from a coalition of 39 of the nation’s foremost agricultural organizations called “Farm Bill Now.” This coalition put forth a targeted, timely and organized effort to raise public awareness of the need for Congress to pass a new, comprehensive, five-year farm bill before the farm programs started to expire last September.

The message was very simple and clear, so why was there no comprehensive new farm bill in 2012? The clear message was just not loud enough.

USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack stirred the agricultural pot in early December with comments about the declining relevance of agriculture and rural America in the larger political scheme of things.

“Why is it that we don’t have a farm bill?” Vilsack said. “It isn’t just the differences of policy. It’s the fact that rural America with a shrinking population is becoming less and less relevant to the politics of this country, and we had better recognize that and we better begin to reverse it.”

The low volume of the “Farm Bill Now” effort was not due to lack of trying. Agriculture was yelling as loud as it could, but the shouts of so few were easily lost amid the budgetary woes, election politics and the roar of the masses about the fiscal cliff in 2012.

In contrast, the tremendous uproar over the fiscal cliff fiasco was very loud and very clear. Voters almost unanimously expressed outrage over the impending financial doom reported ad nauseam by nearly every media outlet in the country (including the OCJ). At the same time, the “dairy cliff” was generating substantial publicity as well.

Consumers were all fired up about the potential (whether real or exaggerated) for milk prices rising to $7 to $8 per gallon because of the expiring milk subsidy program in the farm bill. But, while the Milk Income Loss Contract (MILC) program was extended, it is really not all that beneficial in today’s struggle with relatively high milk prices and even higher input costs. Congress also extended the dairy price support program, but the reality is that neither of those two programs is very effective. Milk producers were yelling about this, but apparently no one in Congress heard them.

So, Congress did exactly what the loudest and the clearest message out there demanded. Voters as a whole were terrified of both the fiscal and the dairy “cliffs” that were generating the most headlines, so Congress passed a bill that addressed fiscal issues (at least to some degree) and put a symbolic Band-Aid on the dairy issue through the farm bill extension that was enough to sooth the concerns of panicked milk buyers. The collective sigh of relief from the nation drowned out the fervent yelling from the miniscule ag sector regarding the failed farm bill effort.

So what can be done to address this growing lack of political relevance of agriculture? Secretary Vilsack offered a few suggestions.

“It’s time for us to have an adult conversation with folks in rural America,” Vilsack said. “It’s time for a different thought process here, in my view.”

Vilsack said agriculture spent too much time publically fighting amongst themselves in the past year over issues including the Renewable Fuels Standard, the proposed egg housing legislation and the controversial child labor issues, among others. He suggested a rural focus on adopting a growth mindset (capitalizing on new opportunities) instead of a preservation mindset.

Like it or not, Vilsack does have a point, and the Taxpayer Relief Act that emerged just weeks after his “rural relevance” comments is a perfect example. Agriculture needs a clear, unified message more than ever before. And, to generate the necessary volume, that clear unified message also needs to be tied in with areas where the larger public debate and farm policy overlap. Examples of this could include: natural resource conservation, environmental issues, a changing climate, food safety, food prices, bioproducts, animal husbandry, and energy. It seems that the best way to get something done in the 112th Congress (and the challenging political atmosphere that plagued it) was to have the clearest and loudest message out there. And agriculture can’t do that alone.

As we move forward with the 113th Congress that took over this week, it is important to note that most of the key players and their politics are still there. Agriculture as a whole needs to find clear goals, and find effective ways to link them with the hot political issues of the day if there is any hope of getting something accomplished. This, of course, is no easy task, but a very loud and very clear message appears to be a political necessity when working with both Congress and three year olds.

Now, I wonder if Secretary Vilsack has any advice for cleaning deli turkey out of a bathroom sink drain?


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