Back in the day, the Farm Bills enacted every five years to reauthorize major agriculture and nutrition programs were the model of bipartisanship. Indeed, the food stamp program (now called “Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program”) was first devised in part as a way to extend support for Farm Bills to include urban legislators who didn’t know a combine from a snowplow.
The defeat of the latest Farm Bill on the House floor shows how far the old formula has unraveled.
In more recent and ideologically driven Congresses, the bills have sometimes attracted heat from the right, involving both libertarian-ish objections to crop subsidies and hostility toward food stamps as “welfare” programs for those people. Indeed, in 2013 the whole enterprise nearly went down (and wasn’t finished until 2014) over SNAP funding, with House conservatives not thinking cuts went far enough and Senate Democrats thinking they went too far.
With Republicans now controlling both Houses, the big initial Farm Bill controversy has been over the GOP’s desire (lashed along by the Trump administration) to toughen SNAP’s already significant work requirements. Indeed, this became a signature cause for lame-duck Speaker Paul Ryan, and a sort of shriveled booby prize for his frustrated plans to clobber entitlement programs and “welfare” before leaving Congress.
The SNAP provisions of the current Farm Bill guaranteed united House Democratic opposition, and also cost the votes of a few GOP “moderates.” But the bigger problem emerged when conservative members of the House Freedom Caucus looked at the overall dynamics and decided to take the bill hostage to their demands for an immediate House vote on the Goodlatte immigration bill — a measure more conservative than the president’s own in that it offers no permanent succor to Dreamers in exchange for the reductions in legal immigration and border wall funding. This in turn was a response to a very different maneuver by a group of endangered Republican moderates in blue- or heavily Latino districts to join with Democrats and force a vote on a bill that is significantly friendlier to Dreamers without all the nativist filler in the Goodlatte and presidential proposals.
In the end, all these problems were too much of a lift, and the bill went down decisively by a 198–213 margin, with 30 Republicans (actually 29, plus Ryan, who voted no to preserve the right to make a later motion for reconsideration) opposing it. As the GOP defectors keep pointing out, the program authorizations covered by the Farm Bill don’t run out until the end of September, so there’s time to work something out on both immigration and SNAP in time to avoid the mess that occurred last time around. But with so little else of substance on the House agenda this year (at least the Senate has confirmations to absorb its time), it’s entirely possible the Farm Bill will continue to attract hostage-takers until the end of the session. It’s a far cry from the day when this was the one legislative item nobody much fought over.
Meanwhile, Paul Ryan’s desire for a little trophy he can take home to Wisconsin representing his desire to liberate poor people from the government’s help in making ends meet will be delayed one more time.