Former U.S. Ag Secretary Clayton Yeutter was not surprised when Congress was unable to pass a farm bill before adjourning until after the November elections. The Eustis, Nebraska native will join three more former Ag Secretaries for the University of Nebraska Lincoln’s Heuermann Lecture Friday night in Lincoln. Before the event, Grant Gerlock of NET News reached Yeutter to talk about the current politics of the farm bill.
CLAYTON YEUTTER: With everything else that Congress was trying to get done in a political election year, I became persuaded early on that the odds were slim that the farm bill would pass before the election. It’s become difficult for Congress to make tough policy decisions these days and this is always a tough policy decision. So putting it off past the election was really their only logical move over the past several weeks.
GERLOCK: How would you compare it to the process you went through when you were ag secretary. You were working for President George H.W. Bush - a Republican, with a Democratic House and Senate. How would you compare that process to what you’ve been seeing lately?
YEUTTER: Interestingly it was easier then than it is now. We did the 1990 farm bill under those conditions and that’s not easy when the executive branch is in the hands of one party and the Congress in the hands of another. But people don’t work together as well as they did in those days. Partially because congressional districts have been gerrymandered a lot since then, which means that people sit in rather solid districts in many cases. Democrats with little challenge in their districts. Republicans with little challenge in theirs. So they don’t feel the need to work together as much as was the case 25 years ago. That’s regrettable because it’s become really difficult to get decisions made on difficult issues, as I mentioned earlier.
GERLOCK: One suggestion has been to make the farm bill smaller to deal with, to take out the food stamp provisions which have been so politically controversial this time around and to deal with the farm policy parts of it and the food stamp parts of it separately. Do you think that would be a good decision?
YEUTTER: That has been under at least some consideration for a good many years. And from the standpoint of the way government is structured it would make a lot of sense. These food programs, at least the food stamp program, fit much better with the Health and Human Services Department than they do with the Department of Agriculture, but it’s still not likely to happen. The reason for that is there has always been a coalition of the folks who are interested in nutrition, meaning the food programs, and the folks who are interested in farm legislation. That coalition has always provided sufficient votes to pass farm legislation in the House (of Representatives). And the view for many, many years has been that in the absence of such a coalition farm legislation would be doomed.
The other factor, however, which might even be more relevant in this regard, is that Health and Human Services reports for its oversight scrutiny at the Congress to a different set of committees than does the farm bill, than does USDA. And Congress, these committees, protect their base of operations very carefully and ferociously and so certainly the agriculture committees would prefer not to give up these food programs because there’s a lot of money involved and a lot of political involvement and leverage involved there.
GERLOCK: So even though this time around the food stamp programs have been something of a roadblock, they are most likely to stay put.
YEUTTER: Yes, they are. And we’ll have a farm bill too. I’m not sure it will emerge during the lame duck session just after the election because the Congress is going to have a lot to accomplish during that very short session between the election and Christmas. And there are other high priority items that will require the attention of the legislators. As a consequence of that it is possible that the farm bill debate will spill into the coming year. But I still believe there is a high probability that we will see a farm bill before spring planting season.
GERLOCK: One controversy that has spun out of the drought has to do with the Renewable Fuel Standard. The EPA is looking at suspending the Renewable Fuel Standard, which lays out how much ethanol is required to go into the fuel supply. And livestock producers really want that suspension to help bring corn prices down. What are your thoughts on that issue?
YEUTTER: Well, there are difficult trade-offs in that area. I’ve long been a supporter of ethanol but I am totally sympathetic with the concerns being expressed by the cattle, pork, and poultry industries of this country because they’ve taken a very big hit as a result of what’s transpired weather-wise over the past year. How that will come out now depends on how the EPA analyzes the situation and how it makes the trade-offs. Now, what EPA will do is another matter. As you well know I’m on the Republican side of the aisle so I don’t have a lot of influence. I suspect the administration would much prefer not to make a decision on this issue until after the election. This can will be kicked down the road just as has the farm bill.
GERLOCK: In the past do you believe the meat industry would have had more political clout to distribute the pain and suffering among some other groups? I guess what I’m wondering is if you think the beef, pork, and poultry industries have lost political influence in Washington and ceded some of that ground to the ethanol industry?
YEUTTER: No, I don’t think so. They still have a lot of political clout. And so does the ethanol industry for that matter. And so do corn growers. The general farm organizations like the Farm Bureau are somewhat caught in the middle on this because they have members that fit in all these different categories. It’s just a very difficult issue to handle. So I don’t envy EPA or the executive branch. What the government is left with, the administration is left with, is a very difficult, sensitive issue in both political and economic terms with no easy outs. There’s no way to make everybody happy here. It’s impossible.