Field Notes: Farm bill delay no surprise for former ag secretary

Oct 12, 2012

This is the latest installment of Harvest Public Media’s Field Notes, in which reporters talk to newsmakers and experts about important issues related to food production.

For this edition of Field Notes, Harvest Public Media's Grant Gerlock spoke with Clayton Yeutter, a former agriculture secretary, about the difficulty in getting a farm bill passed.

Clayton Yeutter is from small town Nebraska, but he’s no stranger to Washington politics. The Eustis native was the U.S. Trade Representative under Ronald Reagan from 1985-1989 before spending two years as the Secretary of Agriculture under George H.W. Bush.

It was under Bush that Yeutter, a Republican, helped shepherd the farm bill through the House and Senate, which at the time were controlled by Democrats.

“Interestingly, it was easier then than it is now,” Yeutter said.

In the latest Field Notes, I asked Yeutter about one of the hangups in this year’s attempt to pass a farm bill: funding for food stamps. Some have suggested that separating those programs from the bill would make it easier to pass the farm policy provisions on their own.

Yeutter told me that’s an old idea and gave me two reasons it won’t happen. 

First – “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,” Yeutter said.

Without that coalition, he said it would be harder to build support for a farm bill. Besides that, Yeutter pointed to the power Congressional committees can gain by controlling more funding. Food stamps spending added up to about $75 billion in 2011.

“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,” Yeutter said.

Yeutter was not surprised the farm bill failed to pass before the election. And with a full plate in the following lame duck session, he is betting Congress will wait until 2013 before getting back to it.