About That Farm Bill…

Recently, everyone in Washington has been obsessing over the chance of a government shutdown and intraparty fighting between House Republicans and conservative Senators (Ted Cruz, Mike Lee, etc.). It’s been interesting to guess Speaker Boehner’s strategy – or lack thereof – and how Senate Republicans will act once they are put on the spot. But September 30 isn’t just when the government shuts down, it’s also when the current farm bill extension expires. That’s a big deal and it’s not getting the attention it deserves. Let’s recap what’s happened so far:

  • The Senate passed a $955 billion farm bill in early June by a 66-27 vote that included a $3.9 billion cut to food stamps.
  • In mid-June, House leadership suffered a surprising and embarrassing defeat when its farm bill failed by a 195-234 margin. Boehner and company had needed Democratic support to pass the bill – which cuts $20.5 billion from food stamps – as many conservatives didn’t think the cuts were severe enough, but a last-second amendment from Rep. Steve Southerland (R-FL) that Boehner allowed into the bill caused Democratic support to plummet.
  • In July, House leadership split the farm bill in two: one was all about agricultural policy and the other about food stamps. The House passed a farm bill without food stamps a a few days later, consisting of crop insurance, commodity and conservation programs and other small things by a 216-208 vote with no Democratic support.
  • Today, the House is taking up the food stamp part of the farm bill. This time the cuts are much bigger – $40 billion in total – and will attract few in any Democratic votes. The drastic cuts are expected to draw more Republican support so that the bill can pass.

That’s where we are right now. If the House passes that bill today as it’s expected to do – though it’s not a given – then the Senate and House would conference with all three bills and return a compromised version to each chamber where the two houses would vote again. If both pass, then it heads to the president’s desk. If anything goes wrong during that process and President Obama doesn’t sign a farm bill by September 30, then we would revert to a bill passed in 1949 and a bunch of strange, unknown things would happen. Basically, Congress can’t let that happen.

Let’s assume that today’s bill passes and the House and Senate head to committee. Liberals were already furious at $3.9 billion in cuts so they aren’t going to accept $40 billion. Certainly, both sides in committee can find a compromise between those two numbers. But Senate Democrats and House Republicans are both going to be highly reluctant to support $10-20 billion in food stamp cuts, albeit for opposite reasons. If such a bill comes out of committee, it will be very interesting to see who votes for it. Will Boehner have enough Republicans in the House? Will he have to break the Hastert Rule if the cuts aren’t that severe? Will Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid have trouble convincing his Democratic colleagues to support it? We could end up seeing a bill passed with a lot of moderate Republicans and Democrats in each chamber supporting the bill. That’s actually what a compromise looks like and both liberal and conservative activists will go home angry.

But a lot can go wrong here. House Republicans are already very wary of leadership throughout this budget fight and Senate Democrats could even filibuster the bill if enough of them are outraged by the cuts. The latter scenario is unlikely obviously, but not impossible. Public opinion doesn’t play much of a role in this since everyone is focused on the fiscal battles so neither side will necessarily take the blame. That also means that neither side has much incentive to compromise.

Once again, Democrats and Republicans are finding themselves far apart on a bill they have to pass. This could get very messy.


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