President Barack Obama enters his second term with a complex record on food and farm policy. Eight months into the first term, I assessed the administration's record like this:
Like a tractor driven by a drunk, the Obama administration keeps zigzagging on food/ag policy–sometimes veering in the direction of progressive change, other times whipping back toward the agrichemical status quo.
That assessment held up pretty well—the "whiplash" I was getting from the early policy zigzags has settled into a permanent state. And that's reflected in the impressive list of unfinished food and ag policy business the administration carries into its second term. On all of these issues, the administration could go either way, and there's no telling now which.
But one thing is pretty clear: The time frame for resolving them in progressive ways is limited. "The window for getting things done is about 18 months," said Scott Faber, vice president for governmental affairs for the progressive Environmental Working Group. After that, the political class will be engulfed in the 2014 midterm elections—and the administration will likely turn cautious, reluctant to offend interests that might fund the opposition.
Here they are:
1. The farm bill: The basic outlines of food and farm policy are set out in the once-every-five-years farm bill. Congress and the president were due to hammer one out in the 2011-12 session. The White House gave Congress very few signals of what it was looking for in the farm bill, and Congress responded with proposals that enshrined agribusiness as usual (with the tweak of replacing direct payments to corn, soy, and other commodity-crop farmers with new crop-insurance subsidies), adding a bracing dose of austerity for people who rely on government aid for food.
The Senate ended up with a farm bill version that I judged could have been worse (but was actually pretty bad); the House ag committee responded with one that preserved the worst parts of the Senate plan (sellouts to agribiz interests in the form of crop-insurance subsidies) and added deep cuts to the critical food-aid program SNAP, formerly known as food stamps. But then the bill died in the House before the election, buried in a war among GOP factions over just how deeply SNAP could be cut and whether insurance subsidies favored by Big Ag interests could be tolerated in an age of fiscal austerity.
Now the farm bill has entered a chaotic phase. The lame-duck Congress could still get it together to pass one, but Ferd Hoefner, the policy director of the Washington-based National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, told me it's "a long shot" that the Senate and House versions will be reconciled before the clock runs down on 2012. If a deal hasn't been worked out by the holiday recess, then the farm bill process starts from scratch along with the new Congress in 2013.
If that happens, will the administration use the political capital it won in the election to push a progressive new farm bill? That's "theoretically possible," Hoefner told me; but it's "probably unlikely, given that they basically just sat and watched the process" in 2012. In other words, in the coming year, expect Obama to sign something that very much resembles what the House and Senate came up with last year.