Farm Bill Serves as Poster Child for Congressional Dysfunction

National Journal
Norm Ornstein
Dec. 11, 2013, 3:52 p.m.

The news that there will be no farm bill this year, after three fu­tile years of em­bar­rass­ing set­backs and tur­moil, made me re­flect on the lar­ger is­sues. Ex­hib­it A is the farm bill, the poster child for the state of dys­func­tion in Con­gress and Amer­ic­an polit­ics.

In 1969-70, my first year in Wash­ing­ton, George McGov­ern mem­or­ably took to the Sen­ate floor to re­flect on his col­leagues’ culp­ab­il­ity in the Vi­et­nam War. He said, “The walls of this cham­ber reek with blood,” draw­ing a col­lect­ive gasp from those on the floor and in the gal­ler­ies. You wer­en’t sup­posed to talk that way in the Sen­ate. A week or so later, Bob Dole, then a fresh­man sen­at­or, took to the floor and ripped the bark off of McGov­ern for his apostasy.

But some­time later in the year, I saw McGov­ern and Dole walk­ing arm in arm in the Old Sen­ate Of­fice Build­ing. They forged a re­la­tion­ship that blos­somed in­to a 40-year-plus friend­ship, based on their com­mon in­terest in deal­ing with food is­sues. Dole, rep­res­ent­ing his Kan­sas farm­ers, em­braced the food-stamp pro­gram on their be­half, a way to deal with farm sur­pluses. McGov­ern, with a deep pas­sion to al­le­vi­ate hun­ger in Amer­ica, em­braced a sys­tem of price sup­ports that gave money to ag­ribusi­nesses for not plant­ing crops as a way to fund the food-stamp pro­gram.

Their al­li­ance re­flec­ted a more than five-dec­ade re­la­tion­ship between rur­al and urb­an law­makers that made farm bills pos­sible, a kind of mod­el for how Con­gress, through com­prom­ises and trade-offs, can find ma­jor­it­ies for le­gis­la­tion that primar­ily be­ne­fits minor­it­ies or nar­row­er in­terests. To be sure, the al­li­ance was at best im­per­fect; the farm price sup­port sys­tem was not very smart pub­lic policy. But on bal­ance, the co­ali­tion worked, giv­en the lar­ger polit­ics that sur­roun­ded both ag­ri­cul­ture and food stamps, provid­ing stable and ample food sup­plies while adding to the safety net for the poorest among us.

In mid-2012, there were “green shoots” in the Sen­ate over a re­new­al of the five-year au­thor­iz­a­tion of the farm bill due to ex­pire at the end of this year. Through adroit man­euvers, Ag­ri­cul­ture Com­mit­tee Chair­wo­man Debbie Stabenow, work­ing with Pat Roberts and oth­er Demo­crats and Re­pub­lic­ans, put to­geth­er a pack­age that got over­whelm­ing, broad sup­port in the Sen­ate. It looked like a mod­el of bi­par­tis­an co­oper­a­tion, provid­ing a lower budget and a mod­est but real set of re­forms in the an­ti­quated price-sup­port sys­tem that dis­com­fited a lot of farm-state so­lons. It also con­tained some cuts in food stamps, a bow to con­ser­vat­ives who wanted to re­duce spend­ing but a loss for lib­er­als. The deal man­aged to win 90 votes.

Politico‘s Dav­id Ro­gers, who has covered the farm-bill dy­nam­ics me­tic­u­lously, quoted Rep. Col­lin Peterson, D-Minn., the rank­ing mem­ber of the House Ag­ri­cul­ture Com­mit­tee, about the tea-party-dom­in­ated House, “If this gets through the Sen­ate, the dy­nam­ics change and I don’t think they can stop it.”

Wrong. Des­pite fa­cing the greatest drought since the Great De­pres­sion and broad and deep sup­port for a bill in the Sen­ate, the House man­aged to reach new depths of dys­func­tion­al em­bar­rass­ment when Ma­jor­ity Lead­er Eric Can­tor single­han­dedly blew up a del­ic­ate com­prom­ise forged by House Ag­ri­cul­ture Com­mit­tee Chair­man Frank Lu­cas and rank­ing mem­ber Col­lin Peterson. Can­tor de­cided to get be­hind a pro­vi­sion on the House floor aimed at cut­ting food stamps dra­mat­ic­ally over 10 years; in­sti­tuted pun­it­ive new work re­quire­ments; gave states fin­an­cial in­cent­ive to drop eli­gible people from the food-stamp rolls; and took away states’ flex­ib­il­ity over waivers of job-train­ing pro­vi­sions in the pro­gram in the face of con­tinu­ing high un­em­ploy­ment. As Ro­gers de­tailed, 62 House Re­pub­lic­ans who voted for the amend­ment (which ali­en­ated a slew of mod­er­ates) then voted against the bill, killing it on the floor. Nine of the 62 were com­mit­tee chairs who took on their fel­low chair­man Lu­cas, show­ing that the reg­u­lar or­der of de­lib­er­a­tion in com­mit­tees, and a ba­sic de­fer­ence to the del­ic­ate, bi­par­tis­an com­prom­ises worked out there, had dis­ap­peared in the House.

Sub­sequently, Can­tor took the nu­tri­tion com­pon­ent and, ig­nor­ing the com­mit­tee pro­cess, jammed through a plan to double down on food-stamp cuts, slash­ing $40 bil­lion over 10 years, on a 217-210 vote that in­volved no com­mit­tee markup and no amend­ments al­lowed on the House floor.

To be sure, Can­tor’s ac­tions were not just based on his own views. A slew of House Re­pub­lic­ans were — and still are — de­term­ined to blow up the food-stamp pro­gram, trans­form­ing it rad­ic­ally while cut­ting it deeply, un­deterred by the high level of hun­ger in Amer­ica and stub­bornly high un­em­ploy­ment, and un­fazed by the fact that this de­mand has it­self blown up any abil­ity to get a bill en­acted.

After all the tur­moil, we fi­nally saw a House/Sen­ate con­fer­ence com­mit­tee con­vene; it has worked di­li­gently for weeks to try to beat the year-end dead­line and fi­nally get a new law. The con­fer­ence has not been easy; be­sides dif­fer­ences over food stamps and oth­er nu­tri­tion pro­grams, the ef­fort to cut farm as­sist­ance and re­form the price-sup­port sys­tem has led to in­fight­ing among and between dif­fer­ent com­mod­ity groups, fray­ing tra­di­tion­al al­li­ances with more ten­sion as time has passed without a deal. Des­pite the prob­lems, all the groups in­volved, in­clud­ing farm pro­du­cers and nu­tri­tion ad­voc­ates, want a bill to emerge.

Tues­day, it be­came clear that the con­fer­ence had failed, put­ting off the day of reck­on­ing un­til at least the end of Janu­ary — pre­sum­ably with an ex­ten­sion in the cur­rent law to pre­vent milk from bal­loon­ing to $7 a gal­lon as a New Year’s present for Amer­ic­ans.

But even if the con­fer­ees find the elu­sive com­prom­ise, it may well fail in the House — los­ing Demo­crats be­cause it will cut food stamps too much and Re­pub­lic­ans be­cause any­thing short of the $40 bil­lion cut will not be enough. The com­prom­ise may also lose the sup­port of some rur­al law­makers who be­lieve that their com­mod­it­ies have been shaf­ted com­pared with oth­ers.

The same day the farm con­fer­ence came a crop­per, we got a mini budget deal, cre­at­ing a brief feel-good mo­ment, a sense that maybe com­prom­ise is still pos­sible. But with Ed Meese, Freedom­Works, and Her­it­age Ac­ton lead­ing an ef­fort on the right to scuttle the budget deal, it has its own chal­lenges. The farm bill may have been over­shad­owed by spend­ing bills, Obama­care, and oth­er high­er-pro­file con­tro­ver­sies, but it tells us way too much about the do-nothingest Con­gress in our life­time.

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