Do We Need an Agriculture Department?

Ezra Klein thinks we don't need the Congressional Agriculture Committees any more. But the argument he's making also makes the case for getting rid of the Agriculture Department (though the department doesn't have the pernicious influence the committees do on other legislation). Ezra writes:

There was a time in American history when that made some sense. In 1862, the year Abraham Lincoln founded the Department of Agriculture, farm products made up 82 percent of American exports. The agricultural industry was one of the country's most important employers. And in an age of wars, famines, and general instability, there was a direct government interest in keeping an eye on food producers.

But that went the way of powdered wigs and, well, sharecropping. In 2007, agricultural products weren't one of our Top 12 exports (and, interestingly, the top 12 exports combined only amounted to 38 percent of total U.S. exports; a far cry from the 82 percent that agriculture once controlled). Nor was agriculture one of our top 10 employers.

Most folks would probably say abolishing the Agriculture Department is crazy. But if Congress does manage to pass major health care reform, an environmental bill, immigration legislation, whatever, agencies are going to need to staff up and authorities are going to be rearranged. It might not be insane to do some major rethinking of the departments if that ends up being the case. Or, it could be a rehash of the Department of Homeland Security's growing pains all over again. But at least considering the idea has merit.