01/17/2013 07:07 pm ET Updated Mar 19, 2013

Cliff Avoided, but Democracy's Future in Question

An incredible whirlwind of activity occurred in Washington amidst two weeks of holidays, and the happy result was an avoidance of the so-called fiscal cliff. While it's true we avoided legislative chaos, democracy took a shameful hit that sent a sobering message to policy advocates everywhere: "at the end of the day, your efforts mean nothing."

While ethically compromised deals were occurring everywhere, one of the most blatant power grabs occurred through the last-minute, nine-month extension of the farm bill. The previous five-year farm bill expired on September 30, and Congress needed to take action by January 1 in order to avoid a legislative "poison pill" that would have shot milk prices up to $7-per-gallon. The potential symbolism of poor children unable to afford milk due to Congressional inaction was enough to make something happen.

So a farm bill extension passed at the 11th hour, though not exactly in the manner taught in high-school civics. In theory, legislation goes through a methodical process of committees, sub-committees, hearings and floor votes in both the House and the Senate. The different bills emerging from the two Congressional bodies then gets ironed out by a conference committee and then finalized by a signature from the president.

This textbook definition doesn't describe the 2012 farm bill process in the least. The Senate passed its version of a farm bill over the summer. The House then wrote another version of the bill, one that never came to the point of getting a floor vote. And although it stalled, a tremendous amount of groundwork had been laid in the process, both by Congress as well as by the legions of policy advocates with a stake in the legislation. The Fiscal Cliff negotiators chose to ignore most of that work, however, and instead of using the draft bills as starting points for negotiations, they wrote their own farm bill extension.

In some ways this behavior is understandable. It's similar to my actions when the house is a mess and the company arrives in 10 minutes; paper filing and laundry folding takes a back seat to throwing things in drawers and closets. But the consequences of recent Congressional actions go well beyond unorganized papers and crumpled clothing.

Here's a little context. Farm bill advocates spent years preparing to make important changes in the farm bill. They built strong coalitions between farmers, public health advocates and conservationists; they educated voters; they built relationships with policymakers and legislative staff. In short, they followed the rules for building political strength, and in early 2012 it seemed that the farm bill would provide at least small steps in the right direction.

All of that potential vanished in the past couple of weeks, and the failure is best exemplified by the zombie-like existence of direct payments. Introduced in 2002, this poorly targeted program supported farmers growing crops like cotton, wheat and corn and struggling through awful market prices. While inefficient and expensive, the program satisfied World Trade Organization requirements that farm programs not distort trade patterns or world grain prices.

This bloated $5 billion payment program is a difficult sell when prices are low and farmers are hurting. But the high crop prices of recent years make the direct payments program inexcusable and the focal point of united opposition from many farm groups, conservationists and public health advocates. Even the American Farm Bureau Federation, the largest U.S. farm group and hardly a siren of farm policy reform, called for the end of direct payments at their 2012 convention. The Senate and House agricultural committees heard the call for reform, and neither Congressional body included direct payments in their versions of the farm bill.

Yet lo and behold, the milk-price-saving farm bill extension somehow includes direct payments!
Some policy wonks might not be too fazed by these events. $5 billion, after all, is practically inconsequential in the grand scheme of the federal budget. But what's more concerning is the chilling impact on democratic participation. Congress finagled an expensive and unpopular program in the dark of night, even in the midst of severe budget pressure and strong public opposition, under the cover of providing children with affordable milk. Many supporters of reform, like me, must be wondering why even bother with policy advocacy in future farm bill fights.

Enormous decisions are going to be made over the next several months pertaining to entitlement programs, national debt and, yes, the farm bill. Given this new context of manipulation, how much energy will public interest groups be willing to invest in public policy? How will any truly democratic reform be possible?

This, of course, is not to say that the traditional process is a panacea of democracy. Our system of government is arcane and besotted with money and power, yet it still provides the opportunity for citizens to get their voice heard by Congress. The backroom negotiations that avoided the fiscal cliff shut out the citizenry. Democracy is becoming less and less of a participatory exercise and more of a game of trust.