Prepared statements, but no prepared solutions for rural broadband development

2 November 2013 by Steve Blum
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We’ll get back to you on that.

Wednesday’s meeting between senators and house members from both parties, to discuss what’s known as the farm bill, set the table for ongoing negotiations over what’ll be in it, but didn’t otherwise show progress toward agreement. The farm bill is a trillion dollar package of subsidies for farmers, rural development projects and groceries for the millions of people in the U.S. that rely on food stamps. The house and the senate have competing versions with significant differences – including how rural broadband projects are supported, if at all – and it’s up to the farm bill conference committee to negotiate a compromise.

The committee met on Wednesday for two and a half hours. Most of that time was taken up by committee members reading prepared statements. A couple of points quickly became clear: 1. the big tussle will be over the big ticket item, food stamps and 2. no matter what’s actually in the bill, most on both sides want to be able to claim they’re saving money. Somewhere, some how.

Rural broadband subsidies are small change by Washington standards (tens or hundreds of millions of dollars, depending on the version), but tiny cuts can be turned into big symbols, giving cover to the truly huge programs.

Given the way the process works, we might not know the fate of broadband spending until the farm bill is actually passed. The conference committee’s first meeting was public, but the real negotiations will take place behind closed doors. Once a compromise is reached, the result more or less goes directly to the floor of both houses, and the legislative details might not be publicly available until after the vote.

The timeframe for a decision is uncertain. Because the previous farm bill has largely expired, there’s a sense of urgency, and there’s an expectation of it taking a few weeks, not days or months. But like “small change”, “urgent” has a different meaning in Washington.