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If you want to know why passing congressional legislation has gotten so difficult, here are two numbers to remember: 5 and 532. They illustrate a great deal about Congress today.
When I served in the House decades ago and the “farm bill” came up, stitching a successful piece of legislation together depended on getting five organizations to find common ground.
This year, as Congress is struggling to get a farm bill through, no fewer than 532 organizations signed a letter to Speaker John Boehner. The Farm Bureau signed on, but so did avocado growers and peach canners, beekeepers and archers, and huge businesses like Agri-Mark. What used to require bringing together a handful of constituencies now demands horse-trading among hundreds.
Not every major piece of legislation before Congress is so complicated, but the farm bill is a perfect example of how tough it has become to get a major bill through, with so many competing interests and so much money at stake. Everything on Capitol Hill’s plate this year – from immigration reform to gun control to the upcoming debt ceiling fight – requires legislative language that a wide array of interest groups can agree to. This would be daunting but attainable if Congress operated the way it once did. But it doesn’t
For what the farm bill’s travails also illustrate is that Congress is now a legislatively challenged institution. The leaders on the Hill have fewer tools of persuasion than they once did.
The political parties that once helped enforce discipline can no longer do so, since politicians these days often identify themselves with outside groups like the Tea Party rather than with their political party. And many members – especially in the Republican Party, though it’s not limited to the GOP’s side of the aisle – do not like to compromise.
It’s not a bad thing that the usual inertia on the farm bill has found hard going. The country needs to confront basic questions about federal support for farming, and we also need a real debate about the food-stamp program.
In other words, we’re not getting what we actually need, which is a real policy debate on the role of the government in agriculture. If Congress were working properly, this might have been possible. Increasingly, I fear it’s beyond Capitol Hill’s reach.
Hamilton is director of the Center on Congress at Indiana University. He was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years.