WASHINGTON — Farm-state members of Congress have campaigned for decades on the back of farm bills delivering election-season subsidies and other goodies to rural voters.
Not this year. The bill is stalled, primarily because House GOP leaders don't want a noisy fight over food stamps this close to the election. That poses a particular problem for some Republicans in tight races for the Senate or the House who will go home empty-handed when Congress adjourns this week.
Democrats are gloating.
"It's something that should have been easy," says Heidi Heitkamp, the Democrat running against Republican Rep. Rick Berg in a neck-and-neck, open Senate race in North Dakota. "Something that should have been done did not get done."
Heitkamp and other Democratic challengers are using the farm bill as an example of how they say the Republican-run House is ineffective. Current farm law, which extends subsidy payments to farmers and pays for food stamps, is scheduled to expire Sept. 30, with no new law in place for the first time in recent memory.
In addition to the effect on the North Dakota race, the failure to get a farm bill is affecting the Senate race in Montana and House races in Iowa, South Dakota, Colorado and Illinois.
Farm policy has traditionally been one of the more bipartisan issues on Capitol Hill. It still is, to an extent – the Senate in June passed the five-year farm bill with almost two-thirds of the chamber supporting it. A separate version passed the House Agriculture Committee in July with Republican and Democratic support.
Calling it a farm bill is something of a misnomer. Food stamps make up roughly 80 percent of the costs in both versions. The House would cut them 2 percent, angering many Democrats who don't want them cut at all and Republicans who say they should be cut more. The Senate version would cut them by one-half of 1 percent.
Since 2008, the food stamp program has more than doubled in cost, to $80 billion a year, driven by high, sustained unemployment, rising food prices and expanded eligibility under President Barack Obama's 2009 economic stimulus law. Food stamps now help feed roughly 46 million Americans, or 1 in 7.
It is unclear how angry rural voters will be about the lack of a farm bill. The farm economy has been strong in recent years, and expiration won't mean an immediate loss of benefits for most farmers. But farm-state members argue that the certainty of federal policy is necessary for farmers making their annual business plans this fall and approaching bankers for loans.
Punting the bill may also mean less money overall. While both chambers' versions of the bill would save tens of billions of dollars from current spending, the agriculture committees may be asked to save even more as budgets tighten further next year.
"They are concerned there will be fewer resources if we do it next year, so they worry it will hurt their crop insurance," Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa, said of farmers in his state, where he and Rep. Tom Latham both face serious challenges from Democrats.
King and Berg – along with Republican House colleagues Denny Rehberg of Montana, Kristi Noem of South Dakota and others – have made repeated appeals to Speaker John Boehner of Ohio and other GOP leaders to bring the Agriculture Committee's bill to the floor before Congress adjourns this week.
"The farm bill is far too important for too many Montanans to let election-year politics get in the way of doing the right thing," said Rehberg, who is in a competitive Senate race.
Noem, who is defending her House seat against Democrat Matt Varilek, said party leaders are hesitant to bring up a vote on a bill that they think might fail.
"I am sure they are getting tired of seeing me come down the hallway to talk to them about that," she said. "It's been a disappointment to me that they've made the decisions that they have made."
Rep. Tim Huelskamp, R-Kan., said the legislation has turned into "a food stamp bill" that has bogged down because of both the presidential and congressional campaigns.
"There's not 218 votes to pass it," Huelskamp told reporters. "It's going to be very tough to do that, even in a lame-duck session."
Some House Democrats also are scrambling for cover. Rep. Bruce Braley, D-Iowa, who faces a challenge from 2010 opponent Ben Lange, last week introduced a discharge petition to place the bill on the floor calendar over House leaders' objections.
Though Berg, Noem, Rehberg and a handful of other Republicans signed it, a majority of the House is needed – unlikely when Republicans hold 240 seats to Democrats' 190 and after conservative groups came out against the bill as too expensive.
"I am frustrated that it's not progressing," Berg said of the bill. "The unfortunate thing is that I am seeing it become political, which it really hasn't been for the last year and a half."
Heitkamp is up with radio ads in North Dakota criticizing Berg for "toeing the party line" on farm programs and endorsing some agriculture cuts. In the ad, targeted at farmers who listen to the radio while out in the fields, she reminds voters that agriculture is a $6 billion industry in the state.
Democratic Sen. Jon Tester of Montana, who is facing the challenge from Rehberg and is himself a farmer, calls the House's failure to take up the farm bill "total craziness."
"It's going to have some pretty negative effects on agriculture if these people don't get off their butts and get it passed," he said in an interview. "I am going to continue to try and talk some common sense into the House of Representatives."
Also getting criticism on the campaign trail for the farm bill's collapse are Republican Reps. Scott Tipton in Colorado and Rep. Bobby Schilling in Illinois.
The House in July passed a bill that would help livestock producers who are losing money because of a widespread drought, but the Senate has declined to take that up, with Senate Agriculture Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow saying that similar benefits are included in the larger bill. Republicans Rehberg and Berg have countered Democratic attacks by saying the Senate should consider that legislation.