One of the most unlikely political pairings in U.S. history has kept farms profitable and poverty-stricken families from being hungry for the past four decades.
It's too bad liberal Sen. George McGovern and conservative Sen. Bob Dole aren't patrolling the halls of the Capitol in Washington to fix the mess that is the current farm bill. Thanks to a partnership the pair struck in the 1970s, urban legislators for decades have agreed to support ag subsidy programs in exchange for rural legislators' support for food stamp and nutrition programs.
Sensible cuts to food stamps and particularly to some farm subsidy programs are in order. The Senate has agreed to a compromise that would remove $4 billion from nutrition programs and reduce ag subsidies by nearly the same amount -- not enough, particularly for unhealthful crops such as corn, but still, a reasonable compromise. Tea party Republicans in the House are determined to break up what they call McGovern and Dole's "unholy alliance," but they have no hope of putting together legislation that will pass in the Senate.
The five-year, $500 billion farm bill hangs in the balance. Farm subsidies will end Sept. 30 if no agreement is struck. Expect the price of milk and other dairy products to rise substantially if nothing is done.
Food stamp programs would continue for now. But without a farm bill agreement, about 50 million Americans who rely on the various nutrition programs to keep from going hungry will be at risk of losing them eventually.
Conservatives were different in Dole's day. Dole cared deeply about helping the poor. McGovern found a willing partner in 1977 to help establish the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP).
Few remember today that severe malnutrition was common in the United States in the 1960s and 1970s, especially among children. Presidents Lyndon B. Johnson and Richard M. Nixon took steps toward ending what was regarded as a widespread, national embarrassment. But until McGovern and Dole forged their compromise, malnutrition in this generally wealthy nation persisted.
Congress extended the old farm bill last year when it couldn't come up with enough votes to pass a new five-year deal. Senate and House leaders thought they had reached an agreement earlier this month, but it fell apart after a last-minute, draconian amendment from Rep. Steve Southerland, R-Fla., demanding food stamp recipients meet more stringent requirements. Essentially, those who couldn't find a job or enter a worker training program would go hungry.
The philosophical divide initiated by House Republicans will eventually hurt all Americans. Congress needs leaders such as Dole and McGovern today -- not only to forge a compromise on a new farm bill, but that would be a good place to start.