In his “Stories I’d like to see” column, journalist and entrepreneur Steven Brill spotlights topics that, in his opinion, have received insufficient media attention. This article was originally published on Reuters.com.
1. Can someone please explain the farm bill fight?
I’m a news junkie. But I am completely clueless about one policy issue that is hugely important (it affects what we eat and how much we pay for it), involves hundreds of billions of dollars in government programs and subsidies, and was splashed all over the front pages last week as the latest example of congressional dysfunction.
I’m referring, of course, to America’s farm policy (that’s farm, not foreign) and what last week’s headlines called “the farm bill.”
What is the farm bill? I know it has to do with paying subsidies to farmers for something, enforcing price supports (whatever that means) on some crops or commodities, funding food stamps, and implementing a bunch of other programs supposedly to help the farming economy. But that’s all I know, and I bet that’s all a lot of you know.
This front page New York Times story is so typical of how the mainstream media has covered the farm bill fight that one could start to believe theories that if a story is playing out between the two coasts (where most farms are), most editors and reporters must think it’s not worth worrying about. The Times story refers to the “farm bill” repeatedly, but the paper apparently assumes either that I already know what it is or that I don’t care, because it never describes it. Instead, the focus is all about Washington — the political fallout over the farm bill, whatever it is, being stalled in Congress following a bitter split in Republican ranks.
In fact, to the extent that this and other coverage has delved into the substance of the bill, it’s been mostly about the one part of it that has nothing to do with farming — the food stamp program.
So could someone please do a simple story telling us exactly what the farm bill is and what all the fighting is about? Because the ins and outs are so remote from public view or understanding, this has to be a lobbyists’ festival. Reporters also do well when they crash these parties.
Who is on which side of which issues for what reasons?
How will its resolution, one way or the other, affect not only the farm economy but also what we will pay for food?
How much do taxpayers now pay to support which type of farmers (family or agribusinesses?) and which other industries, and how is that likely to change if a new bill finally passes? What are the arguments for and against these subsidies? What happens if no bill gets passed?
I’m not asking for Woodward and Bernstein here. Just a basic story that explains it all. After all, if, as we saw last week, it’s got the Republicans and even the Democrats fighting fiercely among themselves, it must be interesting — and important.
Note: As I was drafting this item, this column by James Warren highlighting some aspects of the farm bill (such as how it affects olive oil retailers in Staten Island) appeared in the New York Daily News. It’s a good start.
2. Sequestration spoils Paris in June:
This story from the aviation industry blog Aviationpros.com reports that because of sequestration the Pentagon didn’t send its usual fleet of fighter jets to put on a show “in the skies above Paris” last week in honor of the Paris Air Show. The June air show is an annual aviation industry convention and, according to the site, this is the “first time in more than two decades” that the Air Force didn’t put on a show there.
The trade publication, which noted that the Russian Air Force would be fully represented, described the American absence as an example of sequestration “taking its toll.” My reaction was different. Maybe this was an example of sequestration actually eliminating something that might be a waste of money, rather than cutting worthy expenditures with a sledgehammer. (With that in mind, it would have been nice if Aviationpros.com had bothered to tell us how much was saved by keeping the jets home.)
The Washington Post has done an excellent job pinpointing, agency by agency, how sequestration has caused furloughs and cut into some important programs. Maybe it’s time for the Post’s troops or some other enterprising reporters to find other examples, like grounding the Paris-bound jets, where sequestration nailed some worthy targets.
3. The high cost of good intentions:
Among the provisions tucked into the massive Dodd-Frank financial reform legislation passed three years ago was a requirement that publicly held corporations must disclose whether so-called “conflict minerals” are “necessary to the functionality or production” of a company’s products. Conflict minerals are those, such as tin or gold, that are extracted from the Democratic Republic of Congo or adjoining countries where armed conflict or human rights abuses are likely involved in mining them.
Although it has nothing to do with curbing the financial and banking system abuses that Dodd-Frank is supposed to be about, this simple disclosure regulation doesn’t seem like a bad idea. Perhaps if companies had to disclose that they are making money off of such misery they might be embarrassed into stopping.
However, last week when I noticed that the SEC had issued a list of Frequently Asked Questions, with answers, related to the rule, I was reminded that going into the weeds to see how seemingly benign regulations play out in real life is usually a fun, important story.
The 1,700-word FAQ document deals with everything from whether a public company whose product was only in the packaging material containing conflict minerals had to disclose that in its SEC filing, to when a company that acquires another company that uses conflict minerals has to begin disclosing. And it turns out those FAQs were apparently the first in a series being issued to explain a mind-numbing 356 page — yes 356 pages — rule promulgated two years after Dodd-Frank passed that laid out the disclosure requirements.
That document is a Washington lawyer’s dream. The details ranged from defining the standard of “due diligence” that must be applied when following the chain of custody of the ingredients in the company’s products, to instructions on how to categorize recycled ingredients, to defining “necessary to the functionality,” to specifying the “auditing standards” that must be used for the disclosure.
So, how about a story explaining how many companies — especially the unlikely ones that we don’t instinctively associate with mining — now have lawyers working away on these disclosures, and whether it’s all worth it?
Indeed, whether it’s Dodd-Frank or Obamacare, there are probably dozens of stories out there like this one. I bet an ambitious reporter could pick almost any paragraph of either bill at random and explore what is likely to be the high — even if justifiable — cost of good intentions.
4. Is The FAA about to kill newsstand sales?
While we’re discussing unintended consequences of regulatory decisions, here’s another idea: Last week the Federal Aviation Administration announced that it will probably soon eliminate the much-discredited prohibition on passengers using electronic devices such as e-readers during takeoffs and landings. That rule was about the only reason left that I ever bought a newspaper or magazine at an airport newsstand. I wonder how many readers are like me. Soon after the prohibition is lifted, someone ought to see how key airport vendors like Hudson News have been affected.
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