From One Washington to the Other
Did you ever see that episode of The Office where both Pam and Angela learn they want to name their babies Phillip, so they constantly try to one-up each other in showing why that name means more to them than it does the other? Well, that’s what D.C. is like to Washingtonians. I grew up in the Pacific Northwest—Washington State, to be precise—and because of that, I have to call our country’s Capitol by its initials only, without any mention of “Washington.”
In fact, the goings-on of D.C. barely touched our lives in that distant corner. D.C.’s politics were like the Pacific Northwesterners portrayed on Portlandia. Probably real, but far enough away to laugh at them.
So, when the opportunity arose to go to D.C. to advocate for a better farm bill with the Farm Bill Law Enterprise (FBLE), my initial reaction was to chuckle. Then it was to stop and say, “Wait—what? Are you for real?”
Day #1: Education, Networks, and Beer
I was one of the first FBLE folks to arrive at Atlas Brew Works, a D.C.-based brewery located on a street that was just industrial enough. It was cool inside, a relief from the sweating sun outside.
There were dozens of folks mingling inside. I struck up a conversation with some folks from Missouri who were there representing women farmers. As it turned out, FBLE was just one of the groups there to learn about the House farm bill and the process of visiting the offices of Senators and House Representatives. There were farmers and food-justice nonprofits from New Jersey, women farmers from across the country, environmentalists, and professional food-policy advocates. With so many diverse people in one place voicing one strong message, I was reminded of my days as a union steward.
Eventually, the taproom was packed as FBLE and others found their way inside. We were separated into groups of ten or so. After a brief message and introduction to the House farm bill from Food Policy Action we dispersed around the room to learn about specific provisions of the current draft of the House’s farm bill.
One of the experts told us about growing up on food stamps and the shame she long felt about it. It brought me back to my own childhood when my mother finally succeeded in getting my brother and me on the free school lunch program while she was out of work and my family was struggling to pay its bills. It brought me back to that shame of seeing my name on a separate list.
We moved from instructor to instructor, learning in a whirlwind about SNAP, farm subsidies and crop insurance, the changes to EQIP and ECR, the so-called King Amendment and ACRE Act, and the proposed cuts to local foods programs. In these breakout meetings, we had the opportunity to ask experts about the farm bill programs and to share personal stories about how those programs affect us. One of the experts told us about growing up on food stamps and the shame she long felt about it. It brought me back to my own childhood when my mother finally succeeded in getting my brother and me on the free school lunch program while she was out of work and my family was struggling to pay its bills. It brought me back to that shame of seeing my name on a separate list.
By the time we returned to the larger group, having been adequately informed of the current issues, I realized how thoroughly organized this all was. It was like a recipe. Despite our many backgrounds and reasons for being there, we were transformed from ingredients into products, sent through the lines to be distributed in packs of four to six to Congress. How appropriate this would happen in a brewery.
Day #2: Sent Out for Delivery to Congress
Our product was the “No to King, No to Acre” group. Much could be and has been said about the King Amendment, including this detailed analysis of the King Amendment and an accompanying index of state laws potentially preempted by it, both of which were prepared by our colleagues at the Harvard Law School Animal Law & Policy Program. The ACRE Act, which has received much less publicity than the King Amendment, still faces accusations of pandering to agriculture’s biggest polluters.
To summarize the message we brought to Congress: (1) the King Amendment is a dangerous amendment with the potential to nullify innumerable local and state laws, so the Senate should not adopt this ludicrous House-created provision in its own draft of the farm bill, and (2) the ACRE Act is a collection of weirdly specific laws proposed in the Senate that quietly erode various environmental safeguards in agriculture without any apparent benefit (except to a select few). If we were cans of beer, that would be our description.
Now, as I mentioned, I am a Pacific Northwesterner. Accordingly, I thought that when you are told you will be visiting the offices of Senators and House Representatives that you would be visiting the actual Senators and House Representatives. Why would such busy politicians want to listen to me? You could imagine my relief, then, when I learned that we would be meeting with their staff, instead.
What stood out to me was how interested these people seemed to be in FBLE and the research we brought to share. Each Senate staff-person, irrespective of the political party of their boss, asked us about what we had been up to, and some asked questions generally reserved for experts.
Wait—had FBLE turned us into experts? How cool!
Occasionally, the staff even had a sense of humor. For example, probably all of them thought the King Amendment was a non-starter in the Senate, and a few rolled their eyes when Rep. King’s name came up.
“What’s he trying to do this time?” they asked sarcastically.
Other times, they were genuinely curious. About half the staffpeople had never heard of the ACRE Act, so they asked us to tell them about it. After learning about its contents, most were pretty sure their bosses would object to at least parts of the bundle of laws. Some asked us specifically how its provisions would affect their own states.
Oh yeah—experts! That’s right!
The one House Representative office we met with had just recently signed a letter opposing the King Amendment. We had not known this before, so we spent the rest of our time talking about the Congressman’s farm bill priorities, the ACRE Act in the Senate, and the farm bill process generally.
The Future: Why FBLE Matters, Why You Matter
How that conversation with the House Representative’s office unfolded embodies my biggest lesson about our visit.
Initially, I assumed that visiting Congress had a prescribed form. I recently read Gaining Access: Congress and the Farm Lobby, 1919–1981. In that book, John Mark Hansen uses the 20th-century lobbying efforts of farm organizations as a proxy for showing how lobbyists gain entry into Congress and explaining how members of Congress choose which of those lobbyists to stick with. Ultimately, Hansen concludes that the strength of these relationships is in the influence lobbyists have over their members in persuading them to reelect the member of Congress.
As a Pacific Northwesterner spreading the word about FBLE to Congress and advocating for a more equitable farm bill, I felt like my strength of influence was zero. Thus, I determined before I started that my worth to the congressional offices I was scheduled to visit was also zero.
The farm bill affects people who cannot afford food; it affects people who drink water and local water districts responsible for making that water drinkable; it affects taxpayers who have to pay for the billions of dollars’ worth of farm bill programs; it affects people who recreate in the outdoors; it affects all those businesses and employees involved in the food supply chain.
But much has changed since the days of the so-called Farm Lobby. Most significantly, the public has begun to realize that farm bill affects all of us, not just farmers. As those brewery trainings made us realize, the farm bill affects people who cannot afford food; it affects people who drink water and local water districts responsible for making that water drinkable; it affects taxpayers who have to pay for the billions of dollars’ worth of farm bill programs; it affects people who recreate in the outdoors; it affects all those businesses and employees involved in the food supply chain. Politicians know that. Politicians know that.And it was clear from each office we visited that the Senators care deeply about the people in their states.
Would a Senator from West Virginia support our position for the same reasons senators from Maine, Virginia, Kentucky, or Delaware support them? Of course not. But they may want the same outcomes.
That conversation in the House Representative’s office was about getting to know what mattered to that Representative’s state and how that Representative saw his state’s interests served in the farm bill. It was about trying to find our own position of advocacy embodied in that Representative’s state. And so it was with the Senators.
It has long been easy for me to pass off D.C. as a certain kind of entertainment. After all, being from Washington, it is easy to forget that the other Washington isn’t just a TV show. But after that transformation in the brewery and that long, hot day of walking from congressional office to congressional office, it occurs to me that what matters to me and to the rest of us out there seeking a more equitable farm bill also matters to a lot more people from across the country, represented in all those different folks I had met, and that might be just enough influence we need.
Brian Fink is the Farm and Food Legal Fellow at Yale Law School.