Hands are wringing all over Capitol Hill now that the House farm bill failed to pass. Much ink will be spilled trying to figure out how and why the vote failed. After House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, neglected to bring the farm bill to the floor at all last year, most assumed he had learned his lesson.
The strategy was simple: make sufficient cuts (particularly to the SNAP side to the bill) to gather tea party votes; allow a handful of meaningful amendments to be debated; and then strong-arm the caucus to avoid any potential deal-breakers for farm state Republicans.
But the speaker and his friends may have underestimated the appetite for reform on the agriculture side of the bill. Many conservative amendments seeking to scale back farm programs were left out of floor debate and several more that had a chance of passing were withdrawn at the eleventh hour. In the end, 62 Republican members defected from the final bill. If just 20 had changed their votes, the bill would have crossed the finish line.
To gauge Republican interest in agriculture cuts, four amendments that received roll call votes stand out. One from Rep. Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., took steps to return the U.S. dairy industry to something like a free market. It passed with the support of the speaker, garnering the support of 196 Republicans, 60 of which voted against the final bill.
An amendment from Rep. Joe Pitts, R-Pa., proposing market-oriented changes to the federal sugar program didn’t fare as well. It failed, but did attract the votes of 137 Republicans, 53 of which later voted against the bill.
A successful amendment from Rep. Jeff Fortenberry, R-Neb., capped commodity payments at $250,000. This would be expected to be a much harder vote for Republicans, given that commodity crops disproportionately come from GOP-leaning districts. Yet 97 voted for the change, 47 of which voted against final passage.
Finally, the hardest vote by far was for an amendment by Reps. Ron Kind (D-WI) and Tom Petri (R-WI) which tackled five separate parts of the crop insurance program. It instituted a means-test for premiums subsidies at $250,000; established a subsidy limit of $50,000 per-year per-individual; shrank the pot of money to pay insurance agent commissions; reduced crop insurers’ promised rates of return; and made the identities of premium subsidy recipients transparent.
The Kind-Petri amendment would save close to $11 billion, but it was a tough pill for many agriculture districts to swallow. The amendment failed, but it did manage to find support from 74 Republicans, 39 of which deserted the final bill.
There were 32 Republicans who voted for all four of these amendments and then against the final bill. The irony is that the Kind-Petri amendment had originally been offered in its separate components. Breaking it up would have made the various sections more likely to pass, since members are affected by the provisions in different ways. Would some of those 32 Republicans who voted for all four of the amendments have voted for the final bill if just a couple portions of Kind-Petri had gotten through?
After the House vote last week, Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa, expressed frustration with fellow Republicans, noting “we are ending direct payments in this bill; we are starting to reverse the obscene growth of the food stamp program.”
But this misses the point. Winding down direct payments and replacing them with expanded crop insurance subsidies and a new entitlement called “Price Loss Coverage” isn’t reform. It’s business-as-usual that is likely to cost taxpayers more in the end. Reform-minded Republicans called the bluff of those who claimed to be making positive changes.
Going back to the drawing board for deeper SNAP cuts will alienate the 16 Democrats who did vote for the bill and make it even more of a non-starter in the Senate. To attract more tea party votes, the House should instead look at the agriculture side, with cuts that both Democrats and at least 32 Republicans who voted against the bill clearly want. Speaker Boehner would gain the branding benefit of reaching across the aisle and making the types of cuts Republicans are accused of avoiding.
Would that cause agriculture-focused Republicans to drop off the bill? Not likely. After Congress’s failure to pass a bill two years in a row, those offices are desperate for the certainty of a five-year agreement for their farmers, even one that contains some cuts.
However leadership decides to move, time is of the essence. Last year’s extension runs out Sept. 30. Hopefully the pressure will force Republicans to be more willing to accept cuts across the whole bill, not just in SNAP.