How the House Republican leadership tries to salvage the failed farm bill is becoming a test of the leadership of House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, and it will also pit the power of the farmers and antihunger activists against the conservative groups that want to dismantle both the farm and food-stamp programs.
But the real political and policy issue is whether House members have become more responsive to national conservative groups than to farmers and antihunger advocates in their own districts who know the importance of the farm bill to a major industry and to providing food to jobless and low-paid people.
Since June 20, when the bill failed to pass the House by a vote of 234 to 195, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va. , the Heritage Foundation, and the Club for Growth seem to be using the farm bill as a tool in a campaign to portray Boehner as a weak leader and make the more conservative Cantor the speaker. Like Boehner, Cantor voted for the farm bill, but since its failure, Cantor has promoted the idea of splitting the bill in two, which would allow separate votes on the nutrition and farm programs.
Whether Cantor can assemble the votes to pass the two separate measures is uncertain. Rep. Marlin Stutzman, R-Ind., who wants separate votes, said last week that the momentum was going his way. But Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa, said he doubts there is support for splitting the bill, and Rep. Tom Latham, R-Iowa, said that the way to get the bill passed may be to bring it up without the amendment sponsored by Rep. Steve Southerland, R-Fla., to which antihunger advocates and Democrats objected most. That amendment would allow states to impose work and training requirements to food stamps. If the applicants couldn't meet them, the states could deny benefits and keep half the money.
But even if the farm bill is split in two, it looks like Heritage and the Club for Growth would still recommend that members vote against it, because they object to the underlying programs. Heritage said in a memo that its six principles for farm-bill reform are separating food stamps from the farm program, turning food stamps into a "work activation" program, adding no new farm programs, avoiding any increase in the cost of crop insurance, capping premium subsidies, and repealing the sugar and dairy programs on the grounds that they raise food prices. Since there is no way that a single farm bill or two bills will contain all those provisions, there seems no possibility that lawmakers who vote for the farm bill can get relief from a barrage of conservative criticism.
Last week the relentlessness of the conservative campaign became apparent when House Agriculture Committee Chairman Frank Lucas, R-Okla., was back in his district. On July 1, the Tulsa World reported that conservative activists, some of whom do not live in Lucas's 3rd District, had shown up that day at a town-hall meeting in Skiatook, Okla. "If you want the conservative Republican vote, you need to come forward with a conservative Republican bill," said Ronda Vuillemont-Smith, a conservative activist from Broken Arrow, which is in the 1st District, where tea-party groups in 2012 ousted Republican Rep. John Sullivan in favor of now-Rep. Jim Bridenstine, who voted against the farm bill.
Lucas, who has also been the target of Heritage Action radio ads threatening to recruit a "real conservative" to run against him, fought back. "I'm under attack by those people," Lucas said. "They're coming after me. They are all special interest groups that exist to sell subscriptions, to collect seminar fees, and to perpetuate their goals."
Lucas continued, "You've got to understand: They don't necessarily want a Republican president or a Republican Congress," he continued. "…They made more money when [Democrat] Nancy [Pelosi] was speaker.… It's a business."
Vuillemont-Smith replied: "That's a perverted way to look at it."
"I'm sorry. I have to deal in the real world," Lucas said, adding that by opposing the bill, conservatives were turning their back on the bill's $40 billion in savings over 10 years, including a $20 billion cut in food stamps.
When Congress comes back to Washington on Monday, members will find that farm and nutrition groups are much better organized than they were when the House voted on the bill. In retrospect, it appears that farm groups were so focused on amendments on crop insurance, the commodity title, and the sugar and dairy programs that they did not rally votes for final passage, while nutrition groups voiced opposition to all food stamp cuts.
But on July 2, a coalition of 532 farm groups—almost the entire rural establishment from farm groups to conservationists to bankers—sent Boehner a letter urging him to bring up the farm bill again as soon as possible and not to split it into two. "This important legislation supports our nation's farmers, ranchers, forest owners, food security, natural resources and wildlife habitats, rural communities, and the 16 million Americans whose jobs directly depend on the agriculture industry," wrote groups ranging from the American Farm Bureau Federation and the National Farmers Union to the American Bankers Association and the World Wildlife Fund. "We believe that splitting the nutrition title from the rest of the bill could result in neither farm nor nutrition programs passing, and urge you to move a unified farm bill forward," the coalition added.
The National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, which represents smaller, environmentally minded farmers, also sent a letter to Boehner and Pelosi urging them "to work together" to bring the bill back to the floor as soon as possible. "This is critical legislation that should not be allowed to continue to drift further into uncertainty," the group wrote. "Nor should it be split up into narrower component parts, a move that dooms its completion."
The Environmental Working Group, which had sided with the conservative and nutrition groups in opposing the bill, also said it favors keeping it intact. "Dividing and passing separate bills will not make it any easier for the House and Senate to reconcile competing bills and send a final bill to the president for signature," Scott Faber, an EWG vice president, told National Journal Daily.
Antihunger advocates, which had praised the failure of the bill because it would have made cuts to food stamps, initially stayed out of the fray, but led by Robert Greenstein of the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities, they have begun coming out against splitting the bill. Greenstein said in an interview that all antihunger, religious, and civic groups involved in fighting hunger should tell members of Congress to vote against both bills if the Republican leadership splits them up. Although he has often criticized some parts of the farm bill, Greenstein said the multidecade history of bipartisan, comprehensive farm bills has achieved "sounder policy and more sustainable policy" than taking up the issues separately. Separating out food stamps, formally known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program or SNAP, "would take the SNAP bill farther to the right and make bigger cuts," Greenstein said. If the bill gets to conference with the Senate and there is no agreement on SNAP, "I worry that it sets the program up for a ceaseless attack over time because it is unauthorized," he added.
The Food Research Action Center, Feeding America, Share Our Strength, and Bread for the World all said in e-mails they are opposed to splitting the bill. Key consumer leaders Carol Tucker Foreman of the Consumer Federation of America and Patty Lovera of Food and Water Watch also said the programs should be kept together.
History shows that it is wise for nutrition advocates to keep nutrition programs within the farm bill. In 1996, then-House Speaker Newt Gingrich, R-Ga., had proposed turning food stamps over to the states as part of his Contract with America. In order to get enough votes that year to pass a new farm bill, then-House Agriculture Committee Chairman Pat Roberts, R-Kan., made sure that the farm bill maintained the structure of the program, but the farm bill reauthorized food stamps for only two years and left the major changes to the program in the welfare reform act. Absent the farm bill, Congress made the biggest cuts to food stamps in the history of the program, and it took antihunger advocates years of action on subsequent farm legislation to claw back the benefits.
Whether all this unity convinces Congress to bring up a single bill may depend on whether the farm and nutrition advocates can persuade freshmen and sophomore members of Congress who are not primarily from rural areas to do so. While farm advocates and political analysts have expressed shock that some members of the House Agriculture Committee and some committee chairmen voted against final passage even though they won their amendments, most of the 62 Republicans who voted against final passage were freshman and sophomore members.
When the Waterways Council, which represents ports and inland waterways, held a news conference shortly after the failure of the farm bill to announce that its members expect to convince the House to pass a reauthorization of the Water Resources Development Act this year, their lobbyists said they believe they can beat the odds by establishing better relationships with the more recently elected members of Congress than the farm lobbyists did.
Randy Russell, an agriculture lobbyist who served in the Reagan administration and has close ties to Republicans, said that if the Republican leadership "makes a calculation" that splitting the bill is a way to get conference, he would try to rally votes for the bills. But Russell added that he is not a fan of splitting the bill because it would make conference with the Senate so difficult.
It's unclear how Democrats would vote on the bill. House Agriculture Committee ranking member Collin Peterson, D-Minn., said he would vote against a single food-stamp bill, but he has not said how he would vote on the farm-program bill.
But the real battle is among the Republicans. An analysis of the most competitive House districts in 2014 by James Carville and Stan Greenberg of Democracy Corps shows the importance for advocates of a single bill of reaching Republicans who are not vulnerable to Democrats. Almost all of the most vulnerable 24 Republicans voted for the farm bill.
Whatever happens, the farm bill has become part of the stratosphere of today's national politics.
Contributing Editor Jerry Hagstrom is the founder and executive director of The Hagstrom Report, which may be found at www.HagstromReport.com.