Farm Bill Goes Down in Flames in the House
Policy + Politics

Farm Bill Goes Down in Flames in the House

REUTERS/Jeff Tuttle

A nearly $1 trillion, ten-year farm bill went down in flames Thursday afternoon in the House after cost-conscious Republicans teamed up with Democratic defenders of food stamps to defeat the measure, 234 to 195.

This is the second year in a row that Congress has failed to muster sufficient support to rewrite national farm legislation – a major embarrassment for congressional leaders. House Agriculture Committee chairman Frank Lucas, R-OK, said there may not be another chance to pass major farm legislation this year.

While the Democratic-controlled Senate last month approved a farm bill containing $4 billion in long term cuts in the federal food stamp program, Democrats in the House balked today at a Republican version that would have slashed food stamp spending by $20 billion over the next ten years.

Democrats were particularly incensed after Republicans added amendments requiring drug testing of applicants and posing other obstacles to acquiring the federal food subsidy.
“This is part of an ongoing effort to demean poor people,”   Rep. Jim P. McGovern, R-MA, told MSNBC after the surprising vote.

Conservative Republicans also objected to substantial increases in crop insurance programs and other generous subsidies for producers. House and Senate Democratic and Republican leaders both touted reforms in their bills that they claimed would save nearly $40 billion over the next five years, largely by eliminating costly and wasteful direct payments to farmers and farmland owners.

But Congress was essentially playing an enormous shell game. That’s because the legislation would shift much of those savings to the federal crop insurance program, created during the Great Depression to protect farmers against drought and flooding or precipitous drops in crop prices. In a sense, lawmakers were simply moving around billions of dollars from one overly generous subsidy program to another to help make farming virtually risk free for a relatively small universe of farmers.

Powerful conservative groups -- including the Club for Growth and the Heritage Foundation, which is led by former Republican Sen. Jim DeMint -- lobbied against some of the bill's remaining and costly farm subsidies.  In the end, 62 Republicans voted against the bill, while only 24 Democrats voted in favor of it.

“Now that the House has defeated the Farm Bill, we should finally discuss real reform,” said Club for Growth President Chris Chocola. “The time for reform is now. We need to put farm subsidies on a path to elimination and we need to devolve food stamps to the state level where they belong. With $17 trillion in debt, the American taxpayers don’t have time to wait.”

Ryan Alexander, president of Taxpayers for Common Sense, said that while there were many reasons for the bill’s failure on the floor, “clearly this wasteful bill was too much and too costly for a majority of lawmakers to stomach, especially in the challenging budget environment.”

“While the rest of the country has been in the economic doldrums for the past few years, farm country has seen record profits,” she said. “The House Agriculture Committee’s reaction to this scenario: layer on more agriculture subsidies that would put taxpayers on the hook for guaranteeing those record profits for years to come.

The bill did this by creating new subsidized income entitlement programs designed to guarantee up to 90 percent of a farmer’s revenue. It also resurrects Moscow on the Potomac guaranteed target prices for favored crops. In fact some of the target prices are so high, they would have triggered immediate payouts.

House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., and House Democratic Whip Steny Hoyer, D-Md., clashed on the floor after the vote, each blaming the other for turning what began as a bipartisan effort to renew the nation’s farm laws into a bitter, partisan confrontation.

Clearly, the fight over food stamp spending was the main lightning rod for partisanship that led to the bill’s demise. Democrats defended the unprecedented growth in the program in the wake of the financial crisis and Great Recession, while Republicans complained about runaway spending and widespread food stamp fraud.

GOP leaders blamed Democrats for not providing enough votes to pass the bill. Only 24 Democrats voted in favor of the legislation after many said the food stamp cuts would remove as many as 2 million needy recipients from the rolls. The addition of an optional state work requirements just before final passage enraged many Democrats who turned against the final bill.

Minnesota Rep. Collin Peterson, the senior Democrat on the House Agriculture Committee, said the work requirements, along with another vote that scuttled a proposed dairy overhaul, turned too many lawmakers against the measure. "Our people didn't know this was coming," Peterson told USA Today after the vote.