President Harry Truman, January 5, 1949
The accidental President Harry Truman surprised many by winning the 1948 presidential election. He ran on the theme of a do-nothing Congress winning 49.5% of the vote against his main rival Republican Thomas Dewey at 45% of vote with two strong protest candidates in Strom Thurmond and Henry Wallace. The election actually foreshadowed signs of party realignment that would happen over the next half-century. Nowhere did that foreshadowing evidence itself more then in the state politics of Minnesota with the emergence of the new coalition party known as the Democratic Farmer Labor party. Hubert H. Humphrey was one of the key architects of that coalition effort. He surprised many by winning a seat to the U.S. Senate that year which many point to as the beginning of the reshaping of Minnesota’s political future.
Truman used his 1949 State of the Union speech to release his plan for a “Fair Deal” for America. His goal was to build on Franklin Roosevelt’s “New Deal” by proposing domestic policies of extending Social Security, federal aid for education, housing for the poor, increased minimum wage, national health insurance, civil rights legislation and permanent federal farm assistance. Little of his agenda was accomplished due to a growing anti-Communist sentiment amongst a coalition of conservative Southern Democrats and Republicans that viewed some of these proposals as far too socialistic for America as our economy was booming following World War II.
What Truman did accomplish in 1949, though smaller than his original plan, was not insignificant. Congress nearly doubled the minimum wage, extended Social Security and passed a permanent farm bill. Now 64 years later we are faced yet again with another do-nothing Congress and, because of their failure to act, that very same 1949 permanent farm bill has essentially become the law of the land again. Since 1949 Congress has only extended the farm bills typically on a five-year temporary basis to allow for adjustments in the changing agricultural economy. Last year Congress failed to adopt a new five-year plan as scheduled and only instituted a very small extension that mostly protected commodity farmers.
On October 1 of this year that small extension expired without much notice due to the fact it was in the midst of a government shutdown and in the collapse of the Affordable Care Act website. Unfortunately, the failure of Congress to adopt a new farm bill has significant and potentially long ranging impacts on Minnesota’s future. Minnesota has long been one of the leading agricultural states and food production centers.
Even though the farm policy reverts back to 1949, the two largest categories of farm bill spending — the SNAP (food stamp) benefits and federal crop insurance subsidies, continue unabated. What is extremely concerning, however, are some of the other key lesser-known programs developed after 1949 that have significant positive impacts. These lesser programs drive innovation, assist in the development of sustainable and organic farming, boost energy independence and protect the environment through conservation programs. When the current farm bill had to be extended last year to give Congress more time to complete it, nearly all of these innovative programs were denied funding in the short farm bill extension that was negotiated between Vice President Joe Biden and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and passed by Congress on January 1 of this year.
Congress did finally pass their respective bills this year and has scheduled a much overdue conference committee. That committee is scheduled to start meeting in October to develop a final five-year package. Unfortunately, if the conference committee is not able to get its act together soon, or again just kicks the can down the road with a short extension, many of these programs could be lost with a significant negative impact on Minnesota’s economy and environment.
Minnesota’s landscape is changing significantly and permanently for the worse due to abuses in the past farm bill and the vacuum that has been created due to Congress’s failure to act. Minnesotans from both the agricultural and conservation communities are simply asking Congress to get off their duffs and just give us a fair deal.