House Failure to Pass the Farm Bill Reveals Fissures

At first it might seem odd that the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) program is overseen by the congressional agriculture committees. It’s a social welfare program and those committees are more well-known for their concern with livestock, commodities and international trade. But farmers grow the food that food stamp recipients eat, and they benefit from the existence of the program. This creates a happy circumstance where a lot of rural voters and politicians representing very conservative constituencies are consistently paired with urban politicians and constituencies to protect the program.

In conservative ideology, anyone who gets something for free is a freeloader who exploits the system. So, conservative politicians tend to want to trim back even earned entitlements like Social Security and Medicare, and they certainly don’t like Medicaid. But if it helps farmers, they have traditionally been willing to go along. That’s why you see bipartisan support for milk subsidies, for example.

In recent years, this unusual alliance of rural and urban interest has begun to break down. And today the House of Representatives failed to pass their Farm Bill because it included an attack on the food stamp program. The first problem was there was absolutely no buy-in for these changes from the Democrats.

House Democrats abandoned negotiations with Republicans over the food stamp changes, which would require adults to spend 20 hours per week either working or participating in a state-run training program as a condition to receive benefits. Democrats argue that a million or more people would end up losing benefits as a result because most states don’t have the capacity to set up the training programs required.

The second reason it failed is that conservatives did not want to vote on the Farm Bill at all until after they were allowed to vote on a hardline anti-immigration bill crafted by the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, Rep. Bob Goodlatte of Virginia. Speaker Paul Ryan and Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy were unable to convince the House Freedom Caucus that they would eventually be allowed to vote on the immigration bill, so they opposed the Farm Bill in protest.

There’s a bit more to this story, as it’s all bound up with a major revolt within the Republican caucus over the fate of the DACA program and the Dreamers.

After the failed vote, a frustrated Rep. Dennis Ross (R-Fla.) left the chamber warning that now more Republican members would sign a discharge petition intended to force votes on a series of immigration measures, including some likely to be backed by Democrats.

He said GOP leaders had sought to convince members to back the farm bill with this warning.

The discharge petition has badly divided Republicans and reminded the GOP of their stark differences on immigration.

The effort represents a revolt against GOP leaders, who generally control what comes to the floor. The petition would set up a “Queen of the Hill” process in which four immigration measures would be voted upon, with the one getting the most votes above 218 being sent to the Senate.

Democrats have been told to back the discharge petition, and GOP leaders have argued it effectively gives power to the minority party.

The votes could lead to House passage of legislation that would shelter “dreamers,” immigrants brought to the United States illegally as children. Helping these immigrants is important to Democrats and many of those backing the discharge petition, as an Obama-era program sheltering them from deportation is being unwound by President Trump.

As you can see, there are a lot of divisions on display here and not a little dysfunction. It’s another example of an addiction to drama and posturing on the House side of Congress taking precedence over competent legislating. The Senate isn’t going to approve the work requirements in SNAP, nor are they even going to consider Bob Goodlatte’s anti-immigration bill. For the purposes of actually enacting changes in the law, these controversies are irrelevant distractions.

A cynic might almost be convinced that the heavily rural House Freedom Caucus did not want to screw over the agricultural interests in their districts by curtailing the food stamp program and used the immigration bill as an excuse for voting against the reforms. That way they could support SNAP while pretending to uphold conservative principles.

You’re not a cynic, are you?

Martin Longman

Martin Longman is the web editor for the Washington Monthly and the main blogger at Booman Tribune.