|Among the 62 House Republicans voting against the farm bill last week, all but one had voted minutes before for a controversial food stamp amendment that undercut Democratic support for passage.This is what passes for “growing the vote” these days in Congress. Or in playground terms: taking your ball and going home.
Fully seven of the 62 are current or former House committee chairmen; two more have appropriations bills of their own to manage on the floor. Yet all turned their backs on Agriculture Committee Chairman Frank Lucas (R-Okla.), left begging for 20 votes just to get to conference with the Senate.
Looking back, it was a remarkable moment not just for the tone-deaf judgment of the House GOP leadership but because the Republicans voting “no” had gotten their way so often in the debate.
A POLITICO review of the voting tallies shows that most of the 62 had voted successfully for $20.5 billion in food stamp savings, capped total federal dollars for the farm safety net, imposed new payment limits on what large farms can get and blocked a new milk supply program favored by most dairy co-ops.
They failed to end the sugar program. And oddly enough, many lined up — without luck — against doing something to battle the collapse of the nation’s bee population.
But on two reform issues — crop insurance and international food aid — a solid majority of this same Republican bloc sent a strong message of support that amounted to a real breakthrough politically. If a farm bill is to be resurrected, these two bipartisan votes are fertile ground for compromise.
Much will be written now about how the defeat spells the end of the old Bob Dole-George McGovern, rural-urban, farm-food stamp coalition in Congress. As agriculture has gotten more consolidated and food stamps more costly in a bad economy and post-welfare reform world, those strains are very real.
But the collapse also said something bigger about the House and the seeming loss of any collective capacity to legislate as an organic whole.
Ignored by the national press and the White House, the farm bill truly made the front pages last week only because it failed. But the bill remains one of the great untold political stories of this Congress, not just for the regional intrigue but the opportunity it offers to reshape a historic safety net — important to food and the land, the poor and a vital piece of the American economy.
In another time, many of the 62 Republican nays might have taken their wins and moved ahead. But the opposite happened, and for the second time in two years, the House failed to pass a farm bill, after watching the Senate succeed, each time with bipartisan majorities.
Lost in the process is the only real effort by Congress this summer to try to come together and find savings to ease the burden of sequestration that is bleeding the daily operations of government.
In marking up the annual Agriculture Department budget recently, House Appropriations Committee Chairman Hal Rogers (R-Ky.) lamented loudly that discretionary spending was being cut while mandatory funds for subsidies and nutrition programs went up. But when handed a chance to bend that curve and save close to $40 billion, three of his subcommittee chairmen voted no on the farm bill.
After Thursday’s defeat, embarrassed Republicans quickly accused Minnesota Rep. Collin Peterson, the Democratic floor manager, of backtracking on his promise to deliver 40 votes. Peterson fell 16 short and GOP aides said they had the Republican votes for passage if Peterson had met his target.
But this explanation ignores the real time dynamics on the House floor — and a long history of conflict between Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) and the Agriculture Committee leadership.
Beginning early this year, Cantor had pressed Lucas to draft a farm bill that not only cut food stamps but also toughened the work requirements for those receiving benefits. Time and again Lucas balked, warning that this would destroy his chances to win Democratic support. Cantor persisted and began championing in GOP leadership meetings a far-reaching amendment sponsored by Rep. Steve Southerland (R-Fla.).
Indeed, the 17-page Southerland amendment is no simple matter. Its author describes it as a bill unto itself: the PRIDE Act (Providing Relief to Individuals Desiring Employment). “This was a pilot project, that was it,” Cantor would say later. But it was a pilot project all 50 states could be part of if they wished.
The Heritage Foundation, which was actively trying to kill the farm bill at the same time, played a part. But more important was the Secretary’s Innovation Group, a conservative Wisconsin-based organization that describes itself as a network for “activist human services secretaries.”
Southerland’s office became involved only last month. There was never a bill filed, nor a House hearing held on the legislation. Yet it came to the floor under a GOP leadership rule that limited debate to five minutes on each side.
Most simply, Southerland would require the Agriculture Department to work with willing states to experiment with applying welfare-reform like rules to food stamps, officially known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.
Mothers with young children would enjoy fewer exemptions than they do now under SNAP’s work rules. And the new work regime would be a full 20 hours a week even for a mother and child getting a maximum of $90 a week, for example, in SNAP benefits.
Participating states would be expected to front the added employment and training costs but would also share half of any savings that resulted from reducing food stamp costs. This last feature most infuriated food stamp advocates for fear that states will seize the chance to profit from squeezing households off the rolls.
“The amendment would shift SNAP’s basic purpose from feeding hungry people to lining state coffers,” said Stacy Dean of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a progressive Washington-based nonprofit. “I can’t remember a time when policymakers ever considered giving states a kickback for refusing to serve unemployed mothers with young children.”
Proponents answer that SNAP is failing to address the employment and training needs of poor households that have no earned income and are locked in poverty. Jason Turner, SIG’s executive director, described the Southerland plan as a “win-win arrangement” in that states would shoulder “the cost of the new work program, and in exchange as recipients go to work, these states share 50-50 with the federal government the expenditure savings.”
It’s not clear how committed Republicans were to the Southerland amendment. Aides would say it was the price of getting conservative farm bill votes and no one expected it to ever become law. But Cantor elevated its impact by speaking on the floor. Lucas felt pressure to go along. And Southerland asked for a recorded vote that split the House along party lines: 227-198.
Cantor’s camp says he felt assured from Peterson that the Democratic votes would still be there for passage. But speaking on the amendment, Peterson bluntly warned it “breaks the deal that we had and is offensive.”
In fact, the Minnesota Democrat had been actively working with Lucas to stem the tide on food stamps. Rep. Mike Conaway (R-Texas), a member of the Agriculture Committee, allowed his own food stamp amendment to fail without a vote. Lucas and 56 other Republicans joined Peterson in blocking a second amendment adding $11 billion in additional cuts. Then came Southerland minutes later. One farm lobbyist recalls the gasp among Democrats when the results were announced.
“The timing was terrible and I told Eric that,” Peterson said later. He had hoped for 40 but was only a ranking member, without the machinery of a full whip organization. The 24 votes he delivered were more than the 19 that Republicans gave him six years when he was Agriculture chairman moving his own farm bill through the House.
Revisiting food stamps now is probably too dangerous. But House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Ed Royce (R-Calif.) was one of the 62 and lost only narrowly, 203-220, on his amendment to reform international food aid. Royce had help from 45 other Republicans among the 62. Food aid reform is a priority for the White House and lends itself to compromise.
Crop insurance is a second front. The $13 billion amendment failed 208-217, suggesting something smaller might succeed. Forty of the 62 backed the reforms, and this was a case where splits among the conservatives were fatal. The young Republican rebels from South Carolina lined up 3-1 with the crop insurance industry, for example, after all the boasting of deficit cutting.
A third compromise option is to go local. A set of bipartisan amendments designed to promote smaller scale, local agriculture was blocked by the Rules Committee and never got to the floor. “I have always tried to see agriculture as a big family,” says Rep. Jeff Fortenberry (R-Neb.), one of the primary movers together with Rep. Chellie Pingree (D-Maine).
Family? Both the House and the farm bill could use a little more of that.