Secrecy spawns bad laws

Rik Dalvit/For the Capital Press


The leaders of the House and Senate ag committees are working on the details of how to cut $23 billion from the USDA's budget over the next 10 years as part of a plan that will be put forward before the end of the year by the Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction.

It's an unusual arrangement that gives us pause on a number of levels.

When Congress voted this summer to increase the nation's debt limit, it also created a 12-member "super committee" that is to write a bill to reduce federal budget deficits by $1.2 trillion over 10 years. Failure of the committee to reach an agreement by Thanksgiving, or the failure of Congress to pass its recommendations before Christmas, would trigger across-the-board cuts in spending.

The ag leaders say they'll have their plan to the committee by Nov. 1.

Because of the super committee's deadline, the ag leaders -- two Democrats and two Republicans -- are essentially writing the next farm bill on an expedited schedule without the public hearings and markup sessions that normally give the legislative process transparency.

We have no reason to question the intentions of any of the legislators who are involved. It's unclear whether the leaders -- Senate Agriculture Committee Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich.; Senate Agriculture ranking member Pat Roberts, R-Kan.; House Agriculture Chairman Frank Lucas, R-Okla.; and House Agriculture ranking member Collin Peterson, D-Minn. -- have involved other ag committee members in the effort. We're confident that lobbyists of all stripes are making their pitch, but we don't know who they're listening to and who they are not.

We're not even sure what the leaders are considering. They aren't talking. Sen. Charles Grassley, a member of the Senate Ag Committee, said the leaders plan to cut $15 billion from direct payments and $4 billion each from conservation and nutrition programs.

In general terms, we aren't against those broad objectives. But it's difficult to endorse a plan without seeing the specifics, and it looks like the specifics won't come until it's too late to do much about it.

If the super committee does move to the full Congress, the rules set out in the debt limit extension law mandate that it be accepted or rejected without amendment.

We're not fans of the take-it-or-leave-it lawmaking. It's even less appealing if legislators could find themselves choosing between a bad bill or potentially worse across-the-board mandatory cuts.

One Congress cannot bind a future Congress to its will. So we take a little comfort in that anything in the deficit reduction plan could be rewritten in part or in whole in 2013. Unfortunately that will likely be the undoing of both the law and its goal of cutting spending.

Good laws come from a deliberate, open process undertaken without a gun to anyone's head. What comes of this, good or bad, beyond the $23 billion in savings remains to be seen.

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