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john e. sununu

In Congress, a secret pork society

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From the Illuminati to the Trilateral Commission to the Twig and Plums on “30 Rock,” the world’s great secret societies endure constant accusations of manipulating the levers of global power. America’s Founding Fathers favored the Masons. Three US presidents belonged to Yale’s Skull and Bones. But for raw muscle, determination, and thicker-than-blood loyalty, it’s hard to match the Agriculture Committees of the US Congress.

The membership of the House and Senate panels is public, but the intricate and ritualistic dealmaking that takes place within the fraternity’s Committee Room puts other secret societies to shame. Love or hate the bills they produce — in 12 years I never voted for a farm bill — you can be sure that, once the “Aggies” unite behind something, woe be the man, woman, or president who stands in their way.

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Two years in the making, the Agriculture Reform and Risk Management Act of 2013 cleared Congress in a hurry last week — just five days after negotiators cut the final deal. At nearly 1,000 pages, it exemplifies the best and worst of Washington politics: bipartisanship and political back-scratching, compromises and special-interest earmarks, support for the needy and subsidies for big business. Largely ignored by the national press, the bill is a classic example of legislative sausage-making.

At their press conference last week, Republican and Democratic committee leaders from both chambers took turns praising the combination of compromise and exhaustion that made a deal possible. The looks on their faces showed a confidence that came with knowing they’d just given birth to a legislative powerhouse.

The bill covers a byzantine network of federal spending that must be reauthorized every five years or so. Areas such as rural development and crop insurance date back to Roosevelt’s New Deal; others, such as telecom subsidies and support for biofuels, have been added steadily through the years. Each has its own history and its own set of beneficiaries. In combination, they’re a legislative freight train; once set in motion, a farm bill is hard to stop.

That momentum is compounded by an unusual and historic alliance formed in 1973, when the Food Stamp Program (now called SNAP) was combined with traditional agricultural programs within a larger farm bill. That marriage united representatives of predominantly Democratic urban areas with those from heavily Republican farm country behind a common cause.

Occasionally, this bipartisan coalition has been strained, as with last year’s effort to control explosive growth in food stamp costs. When House Republicans pushed for $40 billion in savings, urban Democrats walked away, and the bill came to a screeching halt. But what didn’t kill the strange alliance made it stronger. The bipartisan margin in the House last week was large — and demonstrated that the partners need each other more than ever.

The fundamental premise of a farm bill makes it read like a laundry list for special interests.

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Of course, bipartisan cooperation comes more easily when there is nearly $100 billion a year to spend. Members of Congress avoid using the word “earmark” these days, and with good reason. But the fundamental premise of a farm bill — price supports, insurance, and loan guarantees for specific crops — makes it read like a laundry list for special interests.

Naturally, lobbyists weigh in on all these issues: for and against milk-margin subsidies, payments in lieu of taxes, and a hundred other programs you have never heard of. But these forces are no different than the unions, banks, or solar companies that lobby education, finance, or energy legislation. The irrepressible power of a farm bill comes not from lobbying, but from the members themselves, their alliances, and their unswerving unity once a deal has been cut.

No president in recent memory felt the power of the juggernaut like George W. Bush. In 2002, Bush spent months criticizing excessive spending, subsidies, and earmarks in farm legislation moving through the House and Senate. His failure to issue an unequivocal veto threat only encouraged members of Congress to see how far they could push the envelope. The momentum they built yielded huge bipartisan votes — majorities that the president was unwilling to take on with a veto when the bill finally reached his desk.

That battle was about more than just one bad bill. The failure to enforce spending discipline set a precedent for Congress to repeatedly exceed Bush’s spending targets on prescription drug, energy, and tax legislation over the next three years. By the time the farm bill came up for re-authorization in 2008, the Aggies were clearly in charge. Congress overrode a belated veto in the wink of an all-seeing eye. It appears George Bush joined the wrong secret society after all.

John E. Sununu, a regular Globe contributor, is a former US senator from New Hampshire.
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