At this moment, in a small-town cafe, VFW hall or church basement somewhere, someone is shaking his head and saying, “You know, it’s really simple, if Congress would just …”
Maybe he and his friends are talking about the Iraq War or tax reform or farm subsidies: Whatever the topic, they pretty much agree that our representatives on Capitol Hill are needlessly muddying the waters.
At least, that’s what I take from a recent poll of public attitudes toward Congress. In it, half the people surveyed said they thought Congress has difficulty arriving at decisions because its members just like to argue, not because they represent different points of view or the issues are intrinsically complicated.
So I thought it might be useful to look at an issue Congress is working on right now — the new farm bill — to see why it sometimes takes a while to sort things through on Capitol Hill. It’s a perfect example of how, once different regional interests and lobbying groups come into play, matters quickly become very complex.
Farm bills have always been large, but they used to be pretty straightforward. Every few years, members of the agriculture committees would sit down with lobbyists representing corn, wheat, soybean, cotton, rice and dairy interests and deal out billions of dollars in subsidies.
This year, however, things are very different. In part, this is because the range of agricultural interests that want to have an impact on federal farm policy has grown. Farmers who raise vegetables, fruits, nuts or other specialty crops, for instance, want the federal government to spend more on research and marketing programs, and to buy more of their goods for use in school lunch programs.
This will certainly resonate in a country more attuned than ever to the benefits of healthy eating, but it may also run afoul of traditional commodity producers such as corn and soybean farmers, who worry that the more that is spent on fruits and vegetables, the less will be spent on them.
Meanwhile, other interests that you might not think of as “agricultural” also have joined the fray.
The American Cancer Society and the American Heart Association want the government more involved in improving school lunches and promoting healthy foods. The ethanol industry, of course, wants to keep the subsidies it was able to win in previous years; on the other hand, livestock producers and food processors believe that earlier federal programs promoting ethanol have caused corn prices to rise and they have announced they will fight them this year.
A range of groups interested in farmland conservation, from Ducks Unlimited to the Nature Conservancy, are banding together to have the Agriculture Department enroll more land in conservation programs. The Humane Society and other animal protection groups are lobbying for regulations to improve conditions for livestock.
Now, there’s plenty to shake one’s head about in this. The sheer amount of money spent lobbying on the farm bill is enormous. And it can get a little disheartening watching farmers, agricultural enterprises and others who extol free markets scrap for the biggest share possible of federal largesse.
Today, agriculture is one of the most subsidized industries in America. When so much money is at stake — more than $20 billion was spent on farm programs last year — you can see why so many different people might want to get involved.
And the truth is that all these different lobbying groups represent a pretty decent slice of America, from farmers in Iowa to ranchers in Montana to vegetable growers in New Jersey to hunters, environmentalists and animal-lovers all across the country. They inform members of Congress about what’s important to them and, by extension, to the people — often ordinary Americans — who care about their issues.
The problem with lobbying is not the extent and variety of lobbyists, it’s the willingness of members of Congress to let a few well-heeled interests amass more clout than everyone else, sometimes forgetting the interests of taxpayers and consumers.
Yet it’s also inescapable that, when a lot of lobbyists and interest groups get involved in a piece of legislation, it will take time to sort it all out. This is not a bad thing in and of itself. It means that members of Congress are listening to the country at large and doing what politicians ought to do — seek common ground among competing interests and make hard decisions about how to share limited resources.
The problems come when Congress allows all these interests to tie it in knots that can’t be undone.
So the next time you hear someone say that Congress could get more done if its members stopped listening to themselves talk so much, tell them it’s not so simple. There are a lot of people who want to get in a word on Capitol Hill and more than a few dollars out of it.
As frustrating as it can be sometimes, that’s a lot better than a system in which the only voices members of Congress hear are their own.
Lee Hamilton is director of the Center on Congress at Indiana University. He was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years.