RSS
The treacherous politics of the House's food stamps-farm bill fight
House Republicans rallied to pass a farm bill without any money for food stamps. Is it a Pyrrhic victory?
Farmer Jay Sneller watches as a crop cutter mows down the remnants of a drought-ravaged crop on August 22, 2012 in Wiley, Colorado.
Farmer Jay Sneller watches as a crop cutter mows down the remnants of a drought-ravaged crop on August 22, 2012 in Wiley, Colorado. John Moore/Getty Images
E

ven if you are neither a farmer nor one of the 47 million Americans getting help through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), commonly known as food stamps, you're probably still affected by the House's passage on Thursday night of a farm bill with no SNAP funding. Agriculture policy raises or lowers prices of various items at the grocery store, for example.

But the politics of the farm bill fight are fascinating in their own right. The 216-to-208 largely party-line vote on the SNAP-less farm bill — 12 Republicans voted no, no Democrats voted yes — is being scored a victory for Republican leaders. House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) was humiliated in June when an unlikely coalition of conservative Republicans and liberal Democrats defeated a House farm bill that lowered SNAP funding by $20.5 billion over 10 years.

This time around, by splitting SNAP funding from the rest of the motley collection of crop subsidies, soil-conservation funding, rural development grants, and other agriculture-related issues, Boehner and his House leadership team were able to win over enough of the Republicans who viewed the $20.5 billion in SNAP cuts as too small. (The Democrats argued the cuts were too big.) But there's a reason every farm bill since 1973 has included nutrition programs.

Actually, there are a couple of reasons, says Jonathan Chait at New York. There is some policy rationale: "Some of the farm subsidies drive up the price of food, making it harder for poor people to buy the food and thus making it more necessary to subsidize [it]." But mostly it's a political arrangement:

It gets urban liberals to vote for farm subsidies that hurt their constituents, and it gets rural conservatives to tolerate food stamps that they'd otherwise oppose. And since advocates of both farm subsidies and food stamps fear losing their program more than anything else, they strongly endorse keeping them together. [New York]

Thus you have 532 farm organizations, including the American Farm Bureau Federation, urging Congress to fund food stamps — roughly 80 percent of the farm bill, financially — and urban anti-poverty advocates supporting tens of billions of dollars in subsidies for powerful agricultural interests.

Conservative groups aren't happy with the bill, either. The Heritage Foundation and Club for Growth both lobbied hard against the House bill, even without food stamps, because it doesn't reform (or get rid of) the farm subsidy programs. Instead, it makes them permanent. Heritage and Club for Growth are rightly angry, says Hot Air's Erika Johnsen, that the House GOP wants to perpetuate "a so-called agricultural policy that isn't much more than a complex raft of special-interest-serving and completely unnecessary price supports, subsidies, and a complex crop-insurance system that basically functions like a federally sponsored cartel."

New York's Chait, who essentially agrees with fiscal conservatives on that point, notes that President Obama is threatening to veto the House bill because, along with not including food stamps, it lacks "sufficient commodity and crop insurance reforms." Ironically, says Chait, "this is a domestic spending program where House Republicans are spending more than Obama wants to spend."

Boehner might have been better off letting this farm bill fail, rather than twisting conservatives' arms to get his slim majority, says Jonathan Bernstein at A Plain Blog About Politics. As written, the 608-page bill isn't going to become law, so it's not clear what forcing through this partisan, coalition-fracturing bill actually accomplished. The House speaker would have been better off, Bernstein argues, using the failure of the half-farm-bill to "push the mainstream of his conference to support a bipartisan bill, leaving the conservative fringe out entirely."

The politics of this are pretty brutal, says Chris Cillizza at The Washington Post, but Boehner did what he had to do: He proved he "could deliver on a promise — an ability that has been severely compromised over the first six months of this year."

Consider the alternative. Let's say that the farm bill failed again, even after leadership had purposely split the bill — and risked a political beating by taking food stamps out of it — in order to ensure something passed. The "who is driving this car" narrative, already in motion, would pick up considerable momentum. Stories about whether the Republican leadership had any control over the GOP conference would be everywhere. Boehner's hand going forward — immigration, debt ceiling, etc. — would be further weakened. [Washington Post]

Anyway, here we are. The Senate farm bill is broadly similar to the one the House rejected in June — notably, it cut about $4 billion in SNAP funding over 10 years — so some level of food stamp money could be restored if both chambers agree to a conference committee. House Republicans pledge to introduce a SNAP-only bill, likely with more than $20 billion in cuts. It's not clear if this would be able to pass in the House, and the Senate won't agree to too-steep food stamp cuts.

This is the Pandora's box that House Republicans just opened. In theory, it could spell the end of food stamps — technically a "mandatory" program that still needs to be funded by Congress — and/or many of the farm subsidies, already unpopular among many urban liberals and fiscal conservatives.

Either of those outcomes would be something for small-government conservatives to cheer about. But farmers in the GOP-leaning grain belt will be watching closely, as will people who rely on food stamps — the heaviest SNAP-usage states, by percentage of population, are Oregon, New Mexico, Louisiana, Mississippi, Tennessee, and Rhode Island. The rest of us might want to pay attention, too.

Peter Weber is a senior editor at TheWeek.com, and has handled the editorial night shift since 2008. A graduate of Northwestern University, Peter has worked at Facts on File and The New York Times Magazine. He speaks Spanish and Italian, and plays in an Austin rock band.

EDITORS' PICKS

THE WEEK'S AUDIOPHILE PODCASTS: LISTEN SMARTER

Subscribe to the Week