The Perils of a Partisan Farm Bill

by Christopher Bosso, author of Framing the Farm Bill

The House Republican leadership took a gamble. Prompted by outgoing Speaker Paul Ryan, it bet that that it could push through a farm bill without any Democratic votes by emphasizing work requirements in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) aimed at cutting overall program spending. Stricter work rules are popular with most (but not all) Republicans but opposed by most (but not all) Democrats. Ryan bet that getting tougher on SNAP would overcome skepticism among more libertarian “Freedom Caucus” Republicans regarding the costs of commodity programs. And Ryan had at least the Twitter support of President Trump.

That bet failed. The House on May 18 voted down HR 2, the Agriculture and Nutrition Act of 2018, 198-213, with 30 Republicans joining 183 Democrats in opposition. Freedom Caucus Republicans, many upset about inaction on a separate immigration bill, rebuffed Ryan’s overtures – as did a few of their more moderate GOP colleagues, for whom charges that their party was stigmatizing hungry people could prove unpopular going into the 2018 midterms. Prospects for House action by November are modest. Meanwhile, the Senate Agriculture Committee will move on its own, more bipartisan bill, to give senators at least symbolic benefits going into the elections.

The take-away? As we saw with the long saga over passage of the Agricultural Act of 2014, as detailed in Framing the Farm Bill, today’s House is a non-rural body. Only three dozen House members now represent “farming” districts. As such, the 1.7% of Americans who farm — and who depend on USDA farm programs – need the votes of colleagues for whom agricultural policy is a distant priority. To do so, they extended farm bills to include priorities of those colleagues — nutrition programs.

Their political calculation was clear. Since the 1970s a shrinking congressional farm bloc included nutrition programs, SNAP in particular, into farm bills precisely to get the votes of their non-rural colleagues for commodity programs they might otherwise oppose as “welfare” for ever-larger farming operations. In return, rural conservatives would support nutrition program spending despite their antipathy toward “welfare” for poor people. That “farm programs + food stamps” deal, an awkward marriage of convenience at the best of times, became the linchpin holding together the farm bill coalition.

However, the House GOP’s most conservative members, bolstered by their homogenous suburban base, rejects this deal. They despise SNAP and commodity programs. In 2013, after dealing the Agriculture Committee a similar floor defeat, they split the two into separate bills, passing each by party line votes. The Senate, whose members represent broader constituencies, reknit the two. No SNAP, no Farm Bill.

Ryan could put SNAP into a “welfare reform” bill. It won’t pass the Senate, because few senators want to untie the knot that has held together farm bills for decades. More to the point, it won’t pass because the few who farm depend on the good will of the non-farming majority for whom SNAP is important. The House GOP’s partisan farm bill had no hope.

Christopher Bosso is professor of public policy and urban affairs at Northeastern University. His books include Environment, Inc.: From Grassroots to Beltway, also from Kansas, and Pesticides and Politics: The Life Cycle of a Public Issue.

Dwight T. Pitcaithley (The U.S. Constitution and Secession) Q & A

Five months after the election of Abraham Lincoln, which had revealed the fracturing state of the nation, Confederates fired on Fort Sumter and the fight for the Union began in earnest. This documentary reader offers a firsthand look at the constitutional debates that consumed the country in those fraught five months. Day by day, week by week, these documents chart the political path, and the insurmountable differences, that led directly—but not inevitably—to the American Civil War. In The U.S. Constitution and Secession; A Documentary Ahthology of Slavery and White Supremacy, Dwight Pitcaithley has assembled the quintessential public statements that lead to the South’s secession in an effort to maintain slavery and advance white supremacy.


1. When did you first have the idea to work on The U.S. Constitution and Secession?

I began my research on secession upon my retirement from the National Park Service in 2005 simply to satisfy my own curiosity. I knew that slavery was at the core of the secession movement, but I did not understand exactly how. As I started uncovering the dozens of proposed solutions to the “problem” posed by Lincoln’s election in 1860 the idea for a book began taking shape. Once I realized that no one had ever codified or analyzed the sixty-seven suggested constitutional amendments or written about them as a specific category of evidence, I started conceptualizing the book.

2. Can you describe your process of writing? How long did you spend working on the book?

From start to finish the book took about a decade. Locating and analyzing the published proceedings from the various official gatherings over Secession Winter took a fair amount of time. Then I had to determine what the proposed constitutional amendments meant. Were they honest efforts to solve the sectional crisis or were they just designed to stall or prolong the deliberative process. Once I understood their import, I began crafting a monograph, organized by geographic regions, that described and analyzed the amendments. I became dissatisfied with that manuscript because of the repetitive nature of the proposed solutions. I then shifted to a documentary reader format with an extended introduction. Crafting the introduction spanned around three years. During the process of understanding the puzzle of secession, I became intrigued with the symbiotic relationship between slavery and white supremacy and the degree to which southerners assumed and defended that connection. Factoring that relationship into the research and writing process provided new meaning to the proceedings of the elected officials over Secession Winter.

3. What was the most challenging aspect of editing the publication?

The most challenging (and yet, in an interesting way, rewarding) aspect of the editing process was chasing down sources for the un-attributed quotes, allusions to historical and fictional characters, and references to classical literature that were imbedded throughout the official documents. The Witch of Endor and Mazeppa, for example, were not part of my educational background.

4. The U.S. Constitution and Secession is, essentially, the nail in the coffin for those arguing that the Civil War was not about slavery. How do you respond to people who maintain their argument that Southern states seceded for any reason other than the protection of slavery and white supremacy?

People can and do believe what they want to believe. If, after reading The U.S. Constitution and Secession, they still maintain that secession was not about slavery, they need to develop the case that Jefferson Davis, Alexander Stephens, Robert Toombs, John Crittenden (and virtually all elected officials at the time) were prevaricating when they explained to their peers that slavery was the root cause of secession.

5. Do you expect, or have you received any negative feedback from your book and the case you are presenting?

I have received no negative comments as yet although I certainly expect some. And I will welcome challenges to the book and its findings. The resulting conversation will help get us where we need to go.

6. What is your reaction to recent events that have triggered a new debate over the roots of the civil war?

My first reaction is sadness that the notion of white supremacy continues to motivate individuals to violence. The events of Charleston and Charlottesville and other places remind us of how far we have yet to go regarding race relations, how debilitating racism continues to be. This nation can abolish slavery and legislate against segregation, but the solution to white supremacist thinking seems to confound us.

At the same time, the public debate over the proper role Confederate memory plays in our society should be welcomed. Airing the dark aspects of this country’s past will help us understand the relationship between then and now, and how decisions we make about the future should not be based on false histories.

7. If you could have any one person read your book, who would it be and why?

President Trump. It might help him understand the historical (and contemporary) corrosiveness of white supremacy.

8. What are you reading now?

Mitch Landrieu’s In the Shadow of Statues: A White Southerner Confronts History (2018)

Dwight T. Pitcaithley is a college professor of history at New Mexico State University. He is a former Chief Historian of the National Park Service.

Matthew Roth (Magic Bean; The Rise of Soy in America) Q & A

At the turn of the twentieth century, soybeans grew on so little of America’s land that nobody bothered to track the total. By the year 2000, they covered upward of 70 million acres, second only to corn, and had become the nation’s largest cash crop. How this little-known Chinese transplant, initially grown chiefly for forage, turned into a ubiquitous component of American farming, culture, and cuisine is the story Matthew Roth tells in Magic Bean: The Rise of Soy in America.
1. When did you first have the idea to work on Magic Bean; The Rise of Soy in America?
It emerged from a discussion on the New York subway between myself and a colleague.  At that point, I had been a vegetarian for 20 years, so I was familiar enough with using tofu as an ingredient, as well as more newfangled soy foods such as textured vegetable protein (TVP).  I had even helped produce commercial tofu at a commune where my brother lived for a time.  But I had no real firm sense of when tofu had become a “thing” in America. More to the point, I didn’t know how that related to its other role as a key component in the American system for producing meat.  Were these two separate strands of history, or were they causally related?  In any case, this double-identity interested me, and I let my curiosity lead the way.  I must have been pretty excited about the topic from the outset, because a lady on the subway told my friend and me that we were talking too loudly.
2. Can you describe your process of writing? How long did you spend working on the book?
Years and years, both in graduate school and beyond.  I once heard a museum curator of found objects describe the first step of creating a good collection as assembling a “critical mess,” and research can be something like that.  I scouted everywhere for sources: old newspapers, magazines and scientific journals; secondary and primary books; patents; fiction and movies; and eventually a wide array of archives. There was a mother lode at the SoyInfo Center near Berkeley, California, which also provides many primary sources online.  Then there was the task of organizing all of this material into a coherent whole: the most complicated jigsaw puzzle you’d ever want to do, especially as there is no picture on the box to guide you.  My first approach was sprawling and biographical, but as I worked on the material, I was able to find narrative through-lines that made sense of the soybean’s rise, and this allowed me to considerably streamline the final book.
3. What was the most challenging aspect of researching the story of the soybean?
I would say getting beyond the hype.  The soybean has had its boosters for over a century, predicting it would be the next big thing long before it actually became the next big thing.  And given its steep rise, you could find articles from just about any year proclaiming its recent ascent from obscurity – in 1960, as in 1930, it was said to have been a negligible factor in American agriculture five years earlier, but had now arrived.  This made it unclear when the true breakthrough came: the boll weevil infestation of the South in the early 1900s? World War I? World War II?  A large part of my work was identifying the false starts, because though the soybean’s rise was eventually precipitous, it was not exactly a straight line.
4. This year soybeans have become the nation’s most-produced crop, overtaking corn. Can you summarize what led soybeans from being almost a forgotten crop at the turn of the twentieth century to America’s leading cash crop?
My argument in the book is that the adoption of the soybean by American agriculture, and its incorporation into American food, followed the path of many major innovations.  The first phase, from around 1900 to 1930, was one of chance and contingency: it benefitted from broader efforts to bring exotic plants into American farming, and then to find alternatives for both the South and North to what were considered soil-depleting crops.  Though the soybean had its boosters, however, it was pretty touch-and-go.  It found a firm home in the Midwest in the 1920s with the emergence of a soybean-crushing industry, but this as well experienced some false starts early in the decade.  By 1930, however, there was a virtuous cycle of investment not only in processing equipment, but in things like combines to harvest soybeans and in federal efforts to import superior varieties.  The Depression era involved efforts to make good on these investments, exploring all avenues of possible – and more lucrative – uses for soybean oil and meal.  Government support during World War II to insure increased meat production helped the industry leap forward.  As the scale of production increased, and soy became more plentiful, it became a competitive raw material for a wide array of uses, which in turn further promoted its growth.  There were limits, though.  Sterols in soybean oil were used early on as precursors for synthetic hormones, but until the end of the century, soy hormones were sidelined by those derived by wild Mexican barbasco yams.
5. What are the possible negative impacts of China’s proposed soybean tariffs?
Enormous.  On the one hand, one would think this was a case where China needed us more than we need them.  In the push to industrialize, China has relinquished its lead as a soy producer and depends heavily on imports.  On the other hand, however, it has options in the world market.  The rise of competition to US soy growers was spurred by a Nixon-era embargo that briefly barred the export of American soybeans.  This made the American supply look unreliable to overseas buyers, especially in Japan, which then invested in a nascent Brazilian soybean industry.  By the 1980s, competition on the world market was one factor in the farm crisis.  But what globalism took away with one hand, it eventually gave back with another: the rise of China at the end of the 1990s, while putting pressure on American manufacturing, was a major boost to soybeans. Up to this point, it has been one of the bright spots for us in the US-China balance of trade.  Maybe not for long.
6. If you could have any one person read your book, who would it be and why?
I have many different people I’d like to read the book for a variety of reasons. There are my idols in my fields of environmental history and the history of technology, folks like William Cronin and Henry Petroski.  There are soybean farmers and researchers, for whom I’d like to provide an enjoyable way to put their work into perspective.  For my fellow vegetarians, I’d like to perhaps shed some light on the ways that dietary habits do and do not change.  If I had an imagined reader while writing the book, I suppose it would be someone somewhat like myself: curious about the stories behind the current shape of our world, in part as a way of discovering how it might be changed for the better.
8. What are you reading now?
As it happens, I’m preparing to teach a new undergraduate course on global food history.  Right now, I’m reading a pair in books in tandem – Andrew Lawler’s Why Did the Chicken Cross the World? and Mark Essig’s Lesser Beasts (on pigs) – that have some relevance to the soybean, which was a key input in the postwar mass production of poultry products and pork.  More than that, though, they are both fascinating, and often funny, explorations into the deep history of the human domestication of the natural world.