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Meet the New Farm Bill

Same as the old farm bill.

Feb 24, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 23 • By DAVE JUDAY
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But farm bill issues can’t be dodged forever. If a farm bill is not authorized every five years, farm programs revert to the Agricultural Act of 1949, which is based on commodity price parity to the inflation-adjusted levels of 1910-14 prices. Subsidies would have exploded. News stories about $7 per-gallon milk became a catalyst to including a one-year extension of the farm bill as part of the fiscal cliff fix passed in the wee hours of a lame duck session on January 1, 2013, and that sparked another controversy to add to the mix. Tea Partiers were outraged by the anachronistic 1949 provision in farm legislation and the dominance of SNAP in the debate, and some farm state legislators were having second thoughts about SNAP’s role in the farm bill as well.

By June 2013, Boehner and Cantor’s strategic decision of not scheduling a vote of the farm bill before the 2012 elections was proven wise: The House voted down the farm bill 195 to 234, notwithstanding the unusual amount of political capital spent by Boehner, who issued a memo to all Republicans urging their support and announcing that he would be voting “aye.” By tradition, speakers do not vote on such bills. Despite Boehner’s urging, six Republican committee chairmen did not vote for the final bill—another break with tradition. The bill lost 62 Republican votes, mostly because spending was not trimmed sufficiently. SNAP received a $20.5 billion cut under the plan; farm programs would have been cut by more than 35 percent. House Budget Committee chairman Paul Ryan was one of the chairmen who broke protocol and did not support Agriculture Committee chairman Frank Lucas’s bill.

More significantly, only 24 Democrats voted for the bill; 172 voted against it. Boehner and Cantor had counted on about 70 Democratic votes. The turning point was an amendment by Republican Steve Southerland of Florida, which would have applied federal welfare work requirements to SNAP. It passed 227-198, with 226 Republicans and a lone Democrat, Representative Jim Cooper of Tennessee, voting yes; 192 Democrats voted no. That amendment, along with the depth of the cuts to SNAP, sealed the fate of the farm bill on the Democratic side of the aisle. The lack of deeper cuts to SNAP was the death knell on the Republican side.

Majority Leader Cantor then took the reins from Lucas, with the simple objective of passing something through the House so the farm bill would get to conference with the Senate bill and a broader debate over spending and reform could be had. His strategy was, first, to pass two bills, one divorcing SNAP from the farm bill, and one that would end the provision reverting to 1949 farm subsidies and, second, to pass both of these bills with only Republican votes.

In early July 2013, Cantor and the House Republicans pushed through a farm bill sans a nutrition title. No Democrats voted for the bill; 12 Republicans voted against it. Finally, on July 16, after more than 40 hearings, two markups, 200 amendments, and three years, the House formally sent H.R. 2642—the farm-only farm bill—to the Senate.

Then, in September, as the House and the Obama administration were starting to clash over a funding bill to keep the government open in fiscal year 2014, which would begin on October 1, Cantor pushed through a separate nutrition bill, doubling down on SNAP cuts, providing for $40 billion in cuts despite the Obama White House having issued a veto threat.

To add emphasis to the Republican position, Rep. Southerland—whose amendment doomed the 2013 farm bill—was named a conferee to the farm bill negotiations with the Senate. The Florida Democratic party issued a press release saying, “Congressman Southerland’s insistence on putting ideology ahead of common sense has resulted in a major loss for Florida’s farmers.” Cantor spoke on the House floor in support of the program, likening it to the successful welfare reforms of 1996 passed by the Republican majorities in the House and Senate under President Clinton.

Indeed, the farm bill process was part of a larger effort by the Republican majority in the House to force a showdown with the administration over entitlement spending. Farm programs and SNAP were on the table long before defunding Obamacare stole the headlines and led to the two-week government shutdown. Remarkably, Republicans were willing to play out this drama on legislation that was dear to a loyal constituency—agriculture and rural voters. Yet in the end, neither the Tea Party nor agriculture has gained from the Republican efforts.

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