by David Goodman, MPP 2015
On November 8, I joined other students from Professor Galen Fountain’s Food Policy short course on a remarkable trip to Washington, DC. Professor Fountain, who was the clerk for the Senate Agriculture Appropriations Committee for over 20 years, provided us with access to an impressive array of policy-makers and committee staff, including an intimate lunch and discussion with a former Senator and an audience with the current Deputy Secretary of Agriculture.
Our day started in the Senate Agriculture Committee hearing room, where we met with both majority and minority staff members who seemed drained but optimistic from a morning meeting of the conference committee working on the long-overdue Farm Bill (this would become a theme as we shuttled around the Hill).
Our second stop took us to the Senate dining room (Senators and their guests only), where we were greeted by former Senator Blanche Lincoln, a friend of Professor Fountain’s (he had previously worked on the staff of Senator Dale Bumpers, who preceded Lincoln as Senator from Arkansas) who served as Chairwoman of the Senate Agriculture Committee for two years until she was defeated in the 2010 midterm elections. We had a spirited discussion about her major legislative accomplishment during that time, the reauthorization of the Child Nutrition programs (including the National School Lunch Program), which introduced the first non-inflationary increase in per-child funding since 1973. In what would become another theme of the afternoon, Senator Lincoln pointed out the difference between how she handled negotiations over that legislation – by finding common ground with the minority party and working from there – and how she sees Congress working today.
Following lunch we met with the jovial Senate Agriculture Appropriations Committee staff in the opulent Appropriations Committee room in the Capitol. They discussed the relative ease with which they get their bill through Congress due to their (usually) non-controversial content, and the difficulties they have faced in the absence of an agreed-upon Senate budget for the past few years.
We headed down off the Hill into the world of NGOs. We met lobbyists from the American Meat Institute (represents companies that process 95% of the country’s red meat), the World Food Program USA (the lobbying arm of the eponymous United Nations program), Feeding America (representing 200+ food banks), the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (a coalition supporting sustainable agriculture), and a private lobbyist who has worked on food and agriculture issues both on and off the Hill. Though they represent divergent interests, they all agreed on the difficulty posed to their lobbying efforts by the shrinking moderate contingent in Congress and the delays in reauthorizing the Farm Bill, which contains many provisions of interest to their clients and is now two years past its reauthorization date.
Our day ended at the Department of Agriculture (USDA), where we were greeted by its second in charge, Deputy Secretary Krysta Harden, and USDA’s budget and program analysis staff. Secretary harden talked about USDA’s priorities in the upcoming Farm Bill, and focused specifically on securing funding to help a new generation of farmers get started in the business, as well as finding new avenues to support the public’s growing interest in knowing more about where their food comes from.
Politics, position, and seniority aside, the one recurring thing we heard from everyone we met was admiration for Professor Fountain. I’d like to take the opportunity to repeat that from the perspective of his students as well.