In a rare display of bipartisanship, a five-year farm bill cleared the Senate last week. Not only did it pass with bipartisan support (over bipartisan opposition) but the process by which it was written and passed was through the increasingly unusual "regular order" in which a committee of jurisdiction works together to draft a bill over several months before sending it to the full Senate where it is amended and then passed. This is an example of how Congress was designed to function. So, what is it about farm policy that has produced consensus in an era of excessive partisanship?
I believe there are four main reasons. First, the issues being debated are not ideological, but regional and geographic. All Senators have agriculture and food production in their states, even Rhode Island, Connecticut and Delaware. This is not as uniformly true in the House where only a minority of Congressional districts have major agriculture production (and a reason why the House may struggle with their own version of the farm bill).
Second, in the area of agriculture policy there is a lot of the traditional logrolling and deal making between Senators of vastly different political ideologies. In the eyes of the public this may not be the most savory aspect of the legislative process, but it obviously helps the system function.
Third, Senator Roberts and Senator Stabenow are continuing the long tradition of bipartisanship on these issues. Great legislators such as Bob Dole, George McGovern and Hubert Humphrey struck a deal on the farm bill back in the 1960s and 70s that links food stamp programs supporting urban consumers (particularly the poor and hungry) with farm subsidies that help rural food producers. This grand bargain struck 40 years ago is still intact.
Finally, in this country there is a historic reverence for the farmer. America was founded as an agrarian nation of small, land holding farmers. They are almost like veterans or military service men and women in this regard, so support for them can transcend even our current state of hyper-partisanship in the same way that support for the military does.
Whatever the reasons, it's refreshing to see that on something, our elected representatives can get along (at least in the Senate) and the system can still work. Bipartisanship and pragmatism in Congress isn't easy, and that is reflected in the process itself; not everyone got everything they wanted. Ultimately Congress set aside ideology and partisanship to pass a pragmatic deal that provides economic security to a major sector of the American economy and food security to millions of the poorest among us.
In many ways, this bill represents the way the legislature used to function. It reminds me of that old song from Fiddler on the Roof called, "Do You Love Me?" where Tevye asks his wife of 25 years if she loves him, and after some pressure she confesses that she does love him, to which he replies "after twenty-five years, it's nice to know." After all the years of partisan nonsense that goes on in Washington, it's nice to know that once in a while they still love each other.