Thursday, August 03, 2006

Farm Bill Debate: Ken Cook v. Larry Combest

With the 2007 Farm Bill approaching, the Environmental Working Group's Ken Cook last month issued a challenge to Rep. Larry Combest (R-TX), to debate the merits of U.S. farm subsidies in a fair and neutral venue. I enjoyed a public debate with Cook last year at the National Food Policy Conference hosted by the Consumer Federation of America, and found him quite reasonable. Surely he won't be any harder on Combest than he was on me!

Here is Cook's letter:

July 6, 2006

The Honorable Larry Combest
Combest Sell & Associates
4914 92nd Street
Lubbock, TX 79424

Dear Congressman Combest,

Most of the agricultural journalists and farm policy experts I've spoken with believe you'll reject the proposal I'm about to make. But here goes:

I'm writing to challenge you to a series of public debates about agriculture policy, including the purposes and impacts of farm subsidies, agricultural trade, conservation, rural development and the shape of the next farm bill.

You and I have often disagreed on the merits of farm subsidies via the media. Why not debate those differences in person as a way to focus public attention on an area of policy that you passionately defend and I strongly criticize?

I was reminded of our disagreements when I read a recent Chicago Tribune article in which you referred to reformers as "the medley of malefactors who are teamed up to bring farm policy down in this country," united by "inverted pentagrams" and "voodoo," and who "need to understand that the real environment—as opposed to the one they are trying to conjure up—is not on their side."

I was so struck by your observations that I actually straightened my pentagrams, stored my voodoo pins, and contacted a number of distinguished agricultural journalists and economists who specialize in farm policy to see if they would serve as moderators at one or more of the debates. Without exception, all of them either readily agreed to do so or expressed an interest in pursuing the idea. I am confident we can arrange for any number of institutions to sponsor the debates at agricultural colleges and universities in farm country. We might also request slots in the programs of major state and national farm meetings and conventions this coming year.

I propose that we kick off the series here in Washington in September or October at your convenience. Sonja Hillgren, the Senior Vice President/Editorial of Farm Journal, past president of the National Press Club, and one of the country's leading agricultural journalists, has agreed to serve as moderator.

Over the past 18 months I've spoken at farm-related gatherings large and small in Minnesota, Kansas, California, Arkansas, Iowa and Oklahoma, so I've experienced firsthand the very strong interest in rural America for an open, rigorous discussion of farm policy. My staff stands ready to schedule debates, in coordination with your office and at your convenience, wherever we can attract farm and ranch audiences.

I hope one or more of our early debates outside Washington would take place in Texas. Ideally one of the sessions would take place in your former district. My idea for the format is simple, if it is agreeable to you. Each of us would have 20 minutes to make our case however we see fit. Call it "PowerPoint at 20 paces." We would have a few minutes to respond to one another's presentations, after which a moderator (or moderators) would pose questions of their own, and invite them from the audience, for another 45 minutes or so, with 3-4 minutes for each of us to summarize. We could arrange to debate specific topics beforehand, or leave the debate completely open—again, if this approach would be agreeable to you.

Many prospective moderators I contacted, journalists in particular, felt that you would decline my invitation on the grounds that a public debate would elevate EWG's visibility on farm subsidy reform. That rationale seemed implausible to me. After all, EWG has routinely been criticized by defenders of the subsidy status quo precisely because we have been so visible in the farm policy debate—and also, allegedly, misleading and flat-out wrong.

Now why wouldn't the former Chairman of the House Agriculture Committee, and the primary architect of the controversial 2002 Farm Bill, take the opportunity to make those points in a public forum, face to face?

I certainly hope that I'm right and the cynics are wrong.

I look forward to your reply, and to some spirited, thought-provoking debates with you about agricultural policy.

Sincerely yours,

Ken Cook