Farm Bill 2013: Why the House of Representatives is Totally Useless


The Senate was hard at work on Thursday, coming to a close on high-level negotiations regarding the immigration bill, which some expect to come to vote as early as this Tuesday. The House, meanwhile, was derailing a used-to-be-bipartisan farm bill, before voting it down entirely.

The bill spluttered and failed 195 to 234, stunning nearly everyone in the chamber. This comes exactly one year after the House pulled the measure off the 2012 legislative calendar because of disagreements over exactly the same things.

Offering a convenient snapshot of its chronic dysfunction, the cantankerous House took the version of the bill passed earlier by the Senate, and made it conservative. Too conservative for Democrats, all but 24 of whom voted no. Not conservative enough for 62 Republicans, many of whom are freshly elected from impossibly gerrymandered districts on compromise-equals-weakness campaign platforms.

The House version of the bill passed committee with a number of far-right amendments, almost all of which stemmed from a government-bad, welfare-worse mentality. The House version would have cut $40 billion over the next 10 years from spending in farm and nutrition programs. Half of that, a full $20.5 billion, would have come from cuts to food stamp programs, such as the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program (SNAP). This soured Democrats, who considered it unconscionable to cut so deeply into one of the most important social programs for working Americans struggling to feed themselves and their children. Other amendments to the House bill included one to require drug testing for food stamp recipients, and another to raise the food stamp requirements to meed federal welfare work standards.

And even if it had cleared the chamber, it's unlikely that a final committee would have been able to reconcile the hyper-conservative House version of the legislation with the Senate’s.

Rep. Marlin Stutzman (R-Ind.), elected in 2010 with help from the Tea Party, was quick to scream, "While it might have been called a 'farm bill,' the American people understand that it was anything but. This trillion-dollar spending bill is too big and would have passed welfare policy on the backs of farmers."

Not to be undone, Rep. Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.), quickly shouted back, "You took a bipartisan bill and turned it into a partisan bill. It’s unfortunate for farmers, for consumers, and for our country."

(Level of screaming is exaggerated; this is just how I imagine the House communicates.)

Both the House and Senate bills would have eliminated a $5 billion-a-year subsidy to farmers and landowners regardless of whether they plant crops or not, savings which would have been redirected to the $9 billion crop insurance program, protecting farmers from bad yields, as well as new subsidies for peanut, cotton, and rice farmers. Both versions would have added provisions to support fruit and vegetable owners, and both would have restored a livestock insurance program, which expired in 2011.

"This is really a defeat for us," said Cristina Llorens, executive director of legislative affairs at the National Beef Cattlemen's Association, "since we were counting on Congress doing something to help the thousands of cattle producers who suffered from the drought."

"It's really had a devastating effect on our industry," she continued. "Our herds are the smallest since World War II. It's going to take us years to rebuild." Livestock producers have been without disaster insurance since 2011.

Many other representatives from the industry say that it will be tough for farmers to get bank loans for new equipment and other necessities, due to uncertainty. Crop insurance will continue for a few months due to a provision passed by Congress to avoid the "fiscal cliff," but those will expire in September.

Routine discontent is brewing, as it tends to do, against House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio). Those on the left view him as increasingly unable to control a hopelessly dysfunctional caucus, many of whom seem more willing to use their seat to prove an ideological point than to legislate. Those on the right are upset at his increasing tendency to work with Democrats, forging compromises that are often unpalatable to Tea Partiers.

Boehner's attempt to reign in some of the most rebellious Republicans late last year, by stripping them of their committee positions, has had little effect.

Senator Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.), whose chamber has now passed a farm bill two years in a row, had some less-than-patient words for her colleagues in the House. "Twice the Senate has overwhelmingly passed a bipartisan farm bill that reforms farm programs, ends direct payments, cuts spending and creates American agriculture jobs," she said, speaking like an exasperated and much better-behaved older sibling. "The House needs to find a way to get a five-year farm bill done."

Outside the agriculture, the deepest implications could be on the impending immigration bill, expected to quickly clear the Senate by a comfortable margin after a series of mostly productive negotiations. But the chances of widespread Republican support over a bill that has been so vocally supported by President Obama is … oh forget it.

"If you think this is hard," said Rep. Trey Gowdy (R-S.C.), who voted against the farm bill, "try getting 218 on a path to legal status."

In other news, Congress ended 2012 with an average approval rating of 15%. The lowest in history.