You Can Almost Hear This One Squeal

Posted: Feb 05, 2014 12:01 AM
You Can Almost Hear This One Squeal

LITTLE ROCK -- Only one of this farm state's U.S. representatives voted against this year's swollen ($100 billion a year) farm bill? Naturally, it would be Tom Cotton.

Other congressmen talk a good game about the need to cut out the waste in an out-of-control federal budget that continues to mortgage the country's future -- and take from future generations by saddling them with more and more government debt. But this Tom Cotton acts. And, as in this case, votes.

He's always been that way. He left a prestigious federal court clerkship to join the Army, where he went through both Airborne and Ranger training before two tours of duty in the Iraq/Afghanistan killing fields. While there, Capt. Cotton earned a Bronze Star, among other commendations, and the respect of the troopers he took on daily -- or nightly -- combat patrols.

How rare, though not unknown: a congressman who acts on his patriotic convictions, and doesn't just mouth them. Even as a Harvard undergraduate, the boy from Dardanelle, Ark., was writing columns in the Crimson defending conservative values, an act of derring-do in those frigid latitudes that should have earned him combat pay long before he was eligible for the real thing. He's got True Grit, like Mattie Ross of Buddy Portis' fine and not entirely fictional novel. She, too, came from "Yell County, near Dardanelle," as she was always proud to say. Maybe it's something in the water up around there.

Whatever it is, Capt. Cotton stands by his guns, and not just figuratively. As he did on this issue, outvoted but not outfought. And he could scarcely have found a worse example of Washington's pork-barrel, log-rolling, deficit-enhancing ways to vote against than this year's atrocious-as-usual farm bill. This thing's got so much pork in it, you can almost hear it squeal.

If there was a special interest in the whole, sprawling, grasping farm- industrial complex now known as Agribusiness that didn't get its cut, it got it by some other name. For example, the feds' command-and-control system that keeps the price of milk and other dairy products artificially high is now called insurance, but that doesn't make it any easier for poor families to afford milk. Those direct handouts in the millions to planters, whether they actually plant a crop or not, are still there -- but they're called Crop Insurance.

There's no surer sign than this rotating crop of euphemisms that something fishy is going on in government. And in the government-subsidized industry that American "farming" has become.

Even the Obama administration's tax on Christmas, specifically Christmas trees, is still there in this latest farm bill, but be sure to call it a Promotion Program.

Yes, there are good reasons, or at least good rationalizations, for Congress's finally passing a farm bill this year, the best being to remove farmers' uncertainty about just what role the feds will play on their farms before spring planting is here.

But there were also crass, self-serving political reasons to pass this squealer, as there always are. Having learned their lesson (Politics Before Principle 101) after the Great Government Shutdown of 2013, the slow but politically educable Republicans in the House have decided not to repeat that political blunder in time for the midterm elections this year, when they might actually make gains this time out rather than embarrass themselves election night.

There are always good reasons to compromise principle. That's how it disappears in politics -- except among those profiles in courage like Tom Cotton, who put his finger on the principal problem with this farm bill. It still links farm subsidies to the food-stamp program in a textbook example of log-rolling. ("You show me yours, I'll show you mine, and we'll vote for both.") That's a continuing pity and shame because the unfairly maligned food-stamp program should be able to stand on its own. For its benefits go directly to the poor who need them, not millionaire "farmers."

Yes, the food-stamp rolls have grown since 2008 -- in tandem with the Great Recession and the greater number of poor, even hungry folks. But it remains one of the better administered and just plain decent government programs in existence. It should never have been yoked with a gigantic vat of pork like the farm bill. But that's how Washington has become accustomed to working, and what the American people have become accustomed to accepting in our public "servants," even when they're serving private greed.

Passing a farm bill is a great triumph -- but only for the farm lobby, not the rest of us.

It takes a clear-eyed Tom Cotton to tell us what's happening right before our eyes -- and have the courage to vote against it. No wonder he's become a rising star in his party. This year he's taking on one of the Democrats' old seatwarmers in the Senate -- Mark Pryor, who's never met a principle he couldn't compromise and call the result "moderation."

What a nice change, and great senator, Tom Cotton might make. Talk about shaking things up. Nothing might do that in Washington like just telling the simple truth.