Since last week, folks in my local and far-flung networks have been asking, “what happened to the Farm Bill?” If you are dismayed, frustrated or angry, you aren’t alone. Many of my colleagues who have been following closely for years say that the 2013 Farm Bill Reauthorization Process is wholly distinct from the process that produced 15 prior farm bills, roughly every five to seven years since 1933. This is my take on what happened.
Background: Groundhog’s Day? Since the US Senate passed its version of the 2013 farm bill earlier this month, the heat has been on the House of Representatives. When the House failed to pass their version last week, a team of researchers and advocates at the Rural Coalition described it as Groundhog’s Day. Presumably, they were referring to the 11th hour negotiations with Big Ag that killed what would have been the farm bill on December 31, 2012. Then as we all remember, Congress hung the nation over the so-called “fiscal cliff” by refusing to agree on a federal budget. In the interim, sequestration and stopgap measures such as the continuing resolution provided only enough funding to keep the government running until September 30, 2013.
“This is the first time, as far as I can tell, a [farm] bill was rejected on the floor.” – Agricultural Committee Chairman Lucas on the radio in Oklahoma (1)
The question here is why couldn’t the House pass a Farm Bill? One interpretation is that Democrats could not abide the systematic attacks on the safety net for 45 million people, including children, families, seniors and other vulnerable people who rely on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program to stave off hunger. The total $20 Billion in cuts to SNAP, commonly known as “food stamps,” was just too much for people of conscience, even when the bill achieved some crop insurance reform and several other bipartisan farm bill firsts. (2)
Why Hold SNAP Hostage & Dems Responsible? I offer an additional interpretation that SNAP is being used as a foil to keep the Farm Bill from going forward. I say this because, without a Farm Bill, SNAP funding remains the same.(3) Folks who genuinely want food, farm and jobs policy reform ostensibly could leave SNAP alone for the moment and work towards agreement on the other issues like subsidies benefiting factory farms, conservation compliance, crop insurance, food safety and international food aid. I also say, look at the spin that makes SNAP and progressive Democrats the culprits.
Observing the House debacle from the Senate side, Agricultural Committee Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) called the House bill “immature” meaning that the committee had not sufficiently achieved bipartisan support for the bill before introducing it on the floor (4), but several analyses point to the studied intentions of the Republican-led House Agriculture Committee and its Chairman, Rep. Lucas of Oklahoma.
In the official Congressional record, House Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Maryland) explained precisely who was responsible for turning the bipartisan bill that emerged from the committee “into a partisan bill.” Namely, “58 of the 62 Republicans who voted against your bill, voted for the last amendment. . .knowing full well that our side could not support that.” (5)
This implies that Republicans did not want the Farm Bill to pass. According to Politico’s David Rogers, “among the 62 House Republicans voting against the farm bill last week, all but one had voted minutes before a controversial food stamp amendment that undercut Democratic support for passage.” (6)
This means that 61 Republican Representatives had already voted the bill down, before the Dems even heard the final amendment. As Lucas said, again on Radio Oklahoma, “that doesn’t mean that the process is over with. That doesn’t mean that the reforms that were included in the bill, whether it’s the commodity title or nutrition or conservation, aren’t important, relevant and won’t ultimately become law, it just means on that day, on that bill, at that moment that Mr. Peterson and I could not persuade a simple majority-218 of our colleagues-to vote with us.” He then added,
But also, in all fairness, Ron, I cannot criticize the Democrats exclusively because 61 of my Republican colleagues, who voted for every one of those major reforms on food stamps, wouldn’t vote for the final bill, and that’s even more amazing. (7)
Is Partisanship like the Civil War? Despite Chairman Lucas’s optimism about passing a bipartisan Farm Bill, I think its failure in the House shines a disturbingly bright light on what is happening across all branches of our federal government. Yes, the emphasis on photo identification, proof of citizenship, exclusion of felons, green cards and the like in legislation about work, voting, eating, driving reflects a transparent and much broader assault on the rights of working people and the socially disadvantaged, including small family farmers, farmworkers, veterans, and the poor. Moreover, following the linkages among the most egregious farm bill amendments, recent decisions in the Supreme Court, and provisions in the Immigration bill signals a heavy and deeper debate, as Armando Nieto of CFJC alluded, between those who favor federalism and those favoring states’ rights. As we celebrate LOUDLY the long overdue decision to overturn DOMA, let’s also keep one eye on our civil rights and the decisions related to who prevents workplace harassment, defends equity in education, and, well, just about everything else.
Notes and Links to References:
1. Thanks to Farm Policy who transcribed the interview for their report. The full recording of the Radio Oklahoma Network’s interview can be found on the Oklahoma Farm Report: http://www.oklahomafarmreport.com/wire/news/2013/06/06103_LucasOnFarmBillFuture06262013c_160949.php#.UczG_7-xFcS
2. See “Food Stamps Changes Helped Defeat the Farm Bill” in the WSJ’s Washington Wire: http://blogs.wsj.com/washwire/2013/06/20/food-stamps-changes-helped-defeat-house-farm-bill/?mod=WSJBlog&utm_source=twitterfeed&utm_medium=twitter
See also “GOP’s Food Stamp Amendment Sinks the Farm Bill.” http://thinkprogress.org/economy/2013/06/20/2191801/gops-food-stamp-amendment-sinks-farm-bill/?mobile=nc
3. If you want more information about why we need a farm bill, NSAC has a great site to peruse, and FarmAid has a study guide here. If you seek a few sites reporting on the continuing resolution start with these:
4. I’m still verifying whether Stabenow made this comment on the record somewhere or in the presence of DC advocates, but for the moment, here’s an article where she celebrates the bipartisan nature of the Senate bill: http://www.mlive.com/news/index.ssf/2013/06/senate_passes_farm_bill_us_sen.html
5. See the congressional record at http://thomas.loc.gov/cgi-bin/query/z?r113:H20JN3-0022:/
6. See David Hogers, Politico, “How the farm bill failed” at: http://www.politico.com/story/2013/06/how-the-farm-bill-failed-93209.html#
7. See reference number (1).