Bending the Rules

Yesterday, the House and Senate released their final appropriations bill for the current fiscal year. Like the House bill passed in June, the bill, which provides funding to the Department of Agriculture, cuts a number of programs. The National Sustainable Agriculture coalition discusses the programs most hurt in a detailed blog post. One of the areas most hurt is conservation: On the whole, programs that help preserve land were cut by almost $1 billion.

But the most senseless provisions were, perhaps, the ones that prevent the USDA from finishing revisions to the rules that govern how meat markets work. The rules, which are enforced by a division of the USDA known as the Grain Inspection, Packers & Stockyards Administration, or GIPSA, regulate the markets through which chicken, hog, and cattle farmers interact with meatpacking companies. Food advocates have long described the ways in which power has consolidated among meatpackers so that a handful of companies control the industry and most of the profits: Worse, court law has interpreted the current GIPSA rules in ways that prevent farmers from suing meatpackers when they break off contracts, underpay them, or otherwise abuse them. The rule-rewriting process, which Congress requested in the 2008 farm bill, directed the USDA to make the rules less ambiguous so that farmers could seek redress when needed, to ensure that meatpackers couldn't engage in unfair, opaque practices, and to try to curb some of the contract abuses. The USDA has been slowly working on them since then and has been sitting on the draft rules for nearly a year. As I wrote last week, the USDA finally forwarded the rules to the White House for finalization, but they left out many important provisions. Most egregious, it seems that outcry from the powerful beef and pork industry kept rules to help ranches in those industries out of the final provisions.

The USDA says it's still considering potential rules that didn't make it into the recommendation it sent to the White House. The new appropriations bill would allow these rules to be finalized only if they're published before December 9 and any of the unfinished rules are killed. At the same time, the House and Senate Agriculture committees are working on a farm bill that will avoid the normal farm-bill debate and, instead, be passed through the deficit-reduction recommendations that go through the Super Committee. This avoids the criticism the bill is likely to receive from every Michael Pollan fan. A number of groups, from the Farm Bureau to food-policy reform advocates, are concerned about what this bill will look like. The chances of it truly reducing subsidies to the country's biggest farm operations are likely slim, as are the chances for any more reforms meant to help small farmers. This is what a decade of attention to food policy gets us: the process moved behind closed doors.