On June 20, when the House unexpectedly failed to pass a farm bill for the first time in "at least" 40 years, many observers felt that things couldn't get much worse. Then, on July 11, the House passed a farm bill by a narrow margin and they did.
That's because the House bill: (1) Did not include any provision for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP -- more commonly thought of as food stamps). (2) Passed along the vast majority of its rewards not to the average family farmer but to large and corporate farming interests. (3) Catered to the most conservative element of the Republican Party who could almost be heard chortling with glee at their "victory".
This farm bill provides a case study for examining congressional dysfunction or to put it another way "House members gone wild." The original version of the bill failed to pass by a margin of 195 yeas to 234 nays.
An astounding 62 Republicans voted against the bill and only 24 Democrats voted for it. The bill failed because conservative House Republicans felt it was too generous to SNAP recipients and the majority of Democrats felt it was too harsh due to a provision that would have reduced food stamp funding for low income families by $20.5 billion over the next ten years.
The vote for the House bill that passed "SNAP-less" was 216-208. All Democrats and twelve Republicans voted against the bill.
In commenting on the removal of SNAP from the bill, Rep Pete Sessions (R., TX) said that "What we have carefully done is exclude some extraneous pieces." The fact is SNAP is not "extraneous" but essential - doing a good job of meeting a very real need.
David Brooks appears to share that perspective. In an interview with Judy Woodruff and Mark Shields on PBS on July 12, Brooks stated that at one point he was contemplating writing a column about food stamps being "wasteful" because the number of people on food stamps has exploded."
Then, he said he did his research and discovered who was actually getting food stamps, Brooks concluded the people who are getting food stamp assistance "deserve to get it" because the "structure of poverty has expanded in the country." He also opined that SNAP looks like a "reasonably good program."
Today that program reaches more than 47.5 million people. According to the AFL-CIO, SNAP provides about $31 a week ($4.42 a day) to the average recipient. It's hard to imagine that level of support turning anyone into a slothful ne'er-do-well sitting at the kitchen table getting fat and happy by imbibing at the public trough.
On the other hand, there is no doubt about who has been bellying up to that trough and fattening up based upon the farm bills passed historically. According to the conservative Heritage Foundation, "the big winners are actually large agricultural enterprises."
The Foundation observes that 75 percent of larger farms collect subsidies compared to only 24 percent of the "little guys." It goes on to highlight that in 2009 farms with gross sales of $1 million or more received 23 percent of all commodity related payments in 2009 compared to a mere 8 percent in 2001. Over that same time period, payments received by farms with sales in the $100,000-$249,999 range, shrank from 34 to 15 percent.
The new House bill not only continues to divide up the subsidy pie unequally, it also manages to make matters worse. That's the opinion of the Heritage Foundation who pointed out this mean feat was accomplished "by making sneaky changes to the bill text so that some of the costliest and most indefensible programs no longer expire but live on indefinitely."
The Heritage Foundation also took umbrage at the way the farm bill was passed highlighting that "the process used to get this 600 plus page bill to the floor in a mere 10 hours essentially violates their own promise to conduct business in an open and transparent manner." The question becomes what has led to this breakdown.
The answer to that lies in the "fractious" nature of the GOP House caucus. On July 10, the day before the House passed the farm bill, the Washington Post ran a revelatory and insightful article by Sean Sullivan and Aaron Blake on the caucus.
Sullivan and Blake examined caucus member's individual votes on six issues: the fiscal cliff, Hurricane Sandy relief, the debt limit, the Violence Against Women Act, the first version of the farm bill which failed, and the selection of a speaker. Based upon their analysis, they found that 69 out of 234 (nearly 30 percent) have voted against the leadership on at least half of these votes. And, 134 out of 234 (over 57 percent) voted "no" on at least two of the six votes. Only 46 members ( approximately 20 percent) voted "no" on none of the bills.
Therein lies the tale, or should we say the tail, of the farm bill. It was constructed to appeal to and around the concerns of the "nay-sayers" -- it was legislating from the right rather than the center. It might have not have been a case of letting the tail wag the dog but it may have been the only way for the House leadership to herd cats.
In conclusion, the House farm bill is just a start. The House is reported to be considering a standalone bill on food stamps. If it does, it is unlikely that bill will be constructed to gain bi-partisan support.
Regardless of what happens, the farm bill will eventually move to a formal conference with the Senate. The farm bill that passed that body had $4 billion in food stamp cuts compared to the $20.5 billion in the original House farm bill that failed to pass.
It is hard to predict what will come out of the conference committee as the final farm bill. But, in our opinion, it should be a bill that is based upon collegial compromise rather than unilateral dictates and that includes adequate SNAP funding and reduced corporate welfare. Put another away, the bill should have More SNAP, No Cackle and Less Slop!