An important quirk of the budget process is known as “congress.” The President isn’t a Prime Minister who can outline a budget and then commit the country to sticking to it. He can outline a budget and then do his best to get congress to pass legislation that conforms to the budget. Consequently, you wind up with a mix of predictions (GDP will be such-and-such leading to such-and-such tax revenues), policy reaches (the cap & trade proposal), and proposals that I think are best characterized as wishful thinking. The Obama administration’s proposal to curtail farm subsidies for the wealthiest farmers most likely fits into the latter category. I asked OMB Director Peter Orszag if he thought that their projections on that score were realistic given the politics of the situation and he responded in a very upbeat and confident manner that the president “was very clear” about his desire to do this on the campaign trail, and so “no one should be surprised” to see the proposal in the budget. Which is true, but a long way from saying that the administration has been putting its shoulder to the wheel to try to find some way to see this initiative through congress.
Meanwhile, the key legislative players are predictably uninterested in changing things:
“We’ll have to see what specifically the president is talking about, but we just finished the farm bill last year, and I don’t think we’ll open it up,” said Rep. Collin C. Peterson, Minnesota Democrat and chairman of the House Agriculture Committee.
Likewise, the ranking Republican on the Senate Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry Committee, said the farm bill, which lasts for five years, “should not be changed midstream.”
“I believe it is premature to make any sweeping changes to the makeup of the farm safety net before we have even had the chance to implement the current farm bill,” said Sen. Saxby Chambliss of Georgia.
It’s remarkable how even a hard-bitten rightwinger like Senator Chamblisss can suddenly see the virtues of a safety net when the beneficiaries are well-to-do agricultural firms. A Christmas miracle, you might say, except that the magic of interest-group politics works 12 months a year. Still, if there are any Republicans out there who are both interested in curtailing domestic discretionary spending and in bipartisan cooperation, it might be smart to try to take this up and make the White House try to live up to its own promises of bipartisanship as well as its budget commitments. The prospects for reform of this sort of thing are never good, but the farm bill written in the Gingrich-Clinton era was substantially less bad than the more recent versions have been, so these things are possible to some extent.