An Urban's Rural View

Moment of Truth for the Farm Bill

Urban C Lehner
By  Urban C Lehner , Editor Emeritus
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The farm bill's moment of truth approaches. The legislation just passed the Senate 66 to 27. Conventional wisdom says it will have a harder time in the House because the food-stamp spending cut in the House bill is too small for many Republicans and too big for many Democrats.

For liberal Democrats representing urban districts, failure to pass a farm bill would be relatively painless. The likeliest outcome would be another extension of current law, with food-stamp spending maintained at current levels. Some big-city Dems favor reforming and cutting farm subsidies but it's not a very important cause for most of them.

For conservative Republicans, the choice is trickier. They shudder at the 40%-plus expansion of the food stamp program in recent years. They fear the deepening of a "culture of dependency" on government handouts. By voting for the bill the ag committee reported they'd get a $20 billion cut in food-stamp spending over 10 years. That's a paltry cut in their view -- less than 3% -- but the alternative if the farm bill fails is no cut.

By voting against this bill, on the other hand, they make a powerful statement of strict fidelity to conservative principle. Their opponents in the 2014 primary in their districts won't be able to say they sold out on food stamps by voting for a token cut.

Texas Republican Michael Conaway has a nice phrase summarizing this dilemma. For House Republicans, is this is a "legislative moment" or a "theatre moment?"

Clinging to ideological purity makes sense when a district is "safe" for the congressman's party but not necessarily for the congressman. In safe Democratic districts the legislator's biggest fear is a primary-election opponent running to his left. In Republican districts it's a more conservative primary opponent. Fully 85% of today's Congressional districts are considered "safe."

And so we must wonder whether a bill that only cuts food stamps $20 billion (…) will get enough Republican votes. If this is a theatre moment it won't, meaning the bill can only pass if a goodly number of Democrats vote for it.

But liberal Democrats have their own theatre-moment logic: "I consider cuts to food stamps heartless and immoral, and I definitely don't want to run against an opponent saying I voted to snatch food from the mouths of the hungry."

Republicans control the House, so they could amend the bill to deepen the cuts in hopes of tempting more of their own to sign on. But the more they do that, the fewer the Democratic votes the bill will get.

That's why it's a delicate matter whether the farm bill can pass the House at all. And if it does, the food-stamp cut will shrink in the ensuing House-Senate conference, which will require House Republicans to vote again, and for a less appealing compromise.

Last year the House leadership didn't bring the bill up for a floor vote, so for supporters the prospect of a floor debate represents progress. Further progress will depend on whether the House is a legislative body or a stage.



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