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The recent stunning defeat of the farm bill in the House of Representatives marked the first time in history that either body of Congress voted down such legislation. That has unleashed the latest round of finger-pointing inside the Beltway, with each party vigorously accusing the other of incompetence, treachery or both.
Republican defenders argue that Democrats either planned all along to pull the plug on the House farm bill (witness the Obama administration’s veto threat) or, at the last minute, reneged on their commitment to produce needed votes for the bill. Democratic sympathizers blame the dysfunctional amateurism of House Republican leaders and the “take no prisoners” mentality of tea partyers for the demise of the farm bill.
Questionable vote-counting on both sides of the aisle, intemperate charges by Democrats that Republicans were taking food from the mouths of babes, and the majority leader’s personal appearance on behalf of an ill-timed food stamp amendment surely contributed to the ugly atmosphere surrounding the final vote.
However, it cannot be said that the defeat was a result of a wholesale revolt by the tea party. Some 171 members of the GOP voted for the farm bill, a clear majority of the majority. Of the 104 first- or second-term Republicans — collectively referred to as tea partyers — who voted on final passage, 78 voted for the bill. Only 11 percent of the votes against the farm bill came from this supposedly unmanageable group of right-wing extremists.
On the other side of the aisle, 24 Democrats voted “aye” on the farm bill while 172 Democrats voted “nay,” with the result that 74 percent of the votes opposing the farm bill were cast by Democrats. No one can claim that Democrats did not do their fair share to sink the legislation.
What probably undid the farm bill more than anything else was the unraveling of one of the oldest alliances of strange bedfellows in American politics.
Since at least the 1970s, legislators from rural districts and their urban colleagues have engaged in a protracted “you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours” arrangement to protect and defend a complex array of agriculture and nutrition programs. Farm state members voted for the food stamp program that benefited predominantly the urban poor; members from the cities supported measures that put more money in farmers’ pockets. Everybody got what they wanted, and farm bill after farm bill was enacted with relative ease.
That is, until trillion-dollar deficits made it impossible for politicians to say “yes” to every request for a handout. The old rural/urban alliance could not hold up under deficit stress. Fissures first appeared in 2012, resulting in the delay of consideration of the new farm bill. When the legislation finally made it to the House floor this summer, the only consensus that could be reached after open debate was no consensus. Those who thought the legislation cut too much from food stamps joined those who thought it cut too little to provide the margin of defeat.