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.
The question now is: where do we go from here on a new farm bill? It is hard to imagine the speaker bringing any package to the floor that would require Democratic help to pass. A simple extension of current law (as was done last year) would keep direct payments in place and shield food stamps from all cuts, thus denying Republicans any gains on that front. Letting the current farm bill expire also would sacrifice food stamp savings. More problematic would be the huge economic dislocations that would flow from a return to underlying permanent law.
Faced with these options, cooler heads may conclude that the only way forward is to add more food stamp cuts and a healthy dose of regulatory relief (targeted, for instance, on EPA surveillance of farmers) to the bill that was defeated in the House, pass it with only Republican votes and go to conference with the Senate, keeping all appendages crossed that whatever emerges will make it to the president’s desk for his signature.
Such an undertaking is a tall order. It would require creativity, a delicate sense of balance, some cajoling of recalcitrant members and a willingness to accept half a loaf rather than no loaf at all, things that have been lacking in the Republican caucus. But the reward would be a measure that might force Senate conferees — and ultimately the president — to give up more than they would otherwise. That prospect must have some appeal to all House Republicans.
Burleigh C.W. Leonard is a former senior staff member for the Senate Agriculture Committee and former special assistant to President Ronald Reagan for food and agriculture and currently a senior consultant on agriculture issues with Prime Policy Group in Washington, D.C.