The president just signed into law the Agricultural Act of 2014, a multiyear, comprehensive agricultural, rural, and nutrition policy measure. As legislation goes, it was rather unremarkable. What was remarkable was the path it followed to approval. Unlike most farm bill debates, which tend to be festivals of bipartisanship and comity, this one split lawmakers—rural from urban, House from Senate, Republican from Democrat—along every political fault including between the Tea Party caucus and the rest of the GOP.
A farm bill is typically passed every five years, and besides payments to farmers includes international food aid, rural development projects, food safety inspection, and, in recent decades, renewable energy incentive programs. There are enough programs to attract votes from all sorts of off-farm political interests. As President Obama said, it’s the legislative equivalent of “a Swiss Army knife.”
Indeed, the single largest program in the farm bill is food stamps, renamed the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) five years ago. The food stamp program was married with the farm bill during the Carter administration in order to build a rural-urban coalition for the 1977 farm bill. This politically arranged marriage served both sides well until now, as SNAP has grown to consume 79 percent of all spending under the farm bill and the political dynamics in Congress have changed.
First, the 2010 elections decimated the ranks of the Democratic Blue Dogs, the moderate to conservative, mostly rural, mostly Southern Democrats in the House. Enough so that when it came time for the minority to assign seven new members to the House Agriculture Committee after the election, there weren’t enough Democrats from farm districts to fill the seats. Several members interested in SNAP took the assignment, notably Reps. Marcia Fudge from Cleveland, now chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus, whose priorities are ending childhood obesity and expanding nutrition programs, and James McGovern of Massachusetts, self-described “unrivaled supporter for social justice and fundamental human rights.” Not your typical Ag Committee members.
Second, the Senate Agriculture Committee was chaired by Debbie Stabenow (D-Michigan), who when writing the first version of the farm bill in 2012 was up for reelection in a state which that year had 1.9 million food stamp recipients and 56,000 farms. Her priorities were clear, and SNAP was preserved. The Senate bill called for a mere $4 billion in cuts over 10 years from SNAP’s $800 billion baseline—about 0.5 percent. Her farm program reforms proved controversial too, leaving an unusual split among farm and commodity groups.
For its part, the House Republican majority was divided between farm program advocates and the Tea Party caucus, whose priority was to trim spending, especially on entitlement programs like SNAP, but on farm programs, too. Majority Leader Eric Cantor feared he could not get a farm bill passed with the two factions splitting the GOP—especially before the 2012 election. He had to balance a bill that would cut enough in SNAP and farm programs to gain Tea Party votes but not so much that it would lose Democratic votes over SNAP or the remaining Republican votes over farm programs. So Speaker John Boehner postponed the bill until after the 2012 election.
Democrats used this to their advantage in farm states. As Jerry Hagstrom recently reported in National Journal, “there is evidence that the unwillingness of House Republicans to take up the farm bill in 2012 helped elect Democratic senators Heidi Heitkamp in North Dakota, Jon Tester in Montana, Joe Donnelly in Indiana, and Claire McCaskill in Missouri.” Donnelly replaced former Ag Committee chairman Richard Lugar. McCaskill defeated St. Louis-area congressman Todd Akin, who opposed the 2002 and 2008 farm bills, though other issues obviously were at play in those races. Heitkamp and Tester, though, were challenged by sitting House Republicans; the two Democrats made an issue of the challengers’ inability to convince the House Republican leadership to bring up the farm bill.