The Farm Bill Game Changes

The Farm Bill's future suddenly appears bleak. Huzzah!


Earlier this month I worried that Congress might pass a new five-year Farm Bill this summer.

I'm happy to report that I may have been wrong.

Even after intense lobbying from 100 powerful groups and an easy trip through the Senate, the Farm Bill hit the ropes last week in the House and absorbed a surprising though well-deserved beating.

62 Republicans joined more than 170 Democrats to defeat the measure.

There are a few ways the Farm Bill drama might play out from this point on. Those include passage this year of a new Farm Bill, an extension of the previous Farm Bill (as happened last year), no Farm Bill passage or extension, a compartmentalization of farm subsidies from the nutrition assistance program that now makes up the bulk of the Farm Bill, abolition of the 1949 permanent Farm Bill, or some combination of these options.

Virtually any of those options is possible. After all, the Farm Bill itself is no longer "something… basic," as Politico writer David Rogers called the bill this week even as the facts on the ground proved otherwise.

It's become far from basic. Six months ago, the last time Congress was trying to figure out what to do with a Farm Bill that failed to pass, I wrote that "Congress should neither revert to the 1949 Farm Bill nor pass a new five-year Farm Bill."

The 1949 bill, which triggers automatically in the event Congress fails to enact some sort of Farm Bill before the end of the fiscal year, contains a host of arbitrary, draconian measures.

I also urged Congress to "make sure this Farm Bill is the last Farm Bill" and "[r]epeal the 1949 law" and suggested that Congress "get to work eliminating the very notion of farm subsidies and—indeed—of any sort of bloated, catch-all Farm Bill."

Thanks to the easy, bi-partisan lure of congressional pork, though, we've a ways to go before that dream is realized.

Of the five-dozen GOP members who voted against the Farm Bill, according to research carried out by the nonprofit I lead, Keep Food Legal, just 10 members hail from districts in the top 100 of those receiving farm subsidy money.

One of those House GOP members who voted against passage of the Farm Bill was Indiana Rep. Marlin Stutzman. It was Rep. Stutzman who had rightly proposed an amendment to the Farm Bill to remove nutrition assistance for the poor from the Farm Bill and to consider that issue in a separate bill.

That approach, a non-starter just a week ago on the House floor, appears to have strong support among libertarian and conservative operatives.

"The first step ought to be separating the nutrition and agriculture titles as distinct bills," says Diane Katz, a research fellow in regulatory policy with the conservative Heritage Foundation, in an email to me. "This would break the unholy alliance between urban Democrats and rural Republicans that has stymied reform for decades. Only then can these programs be judged on their merits rather than their political expediency."

Katz is right. Though even a split might not be enough to force Congress to judge farm programs on any merits they might have.

It appears, for example, that Rep. Stutzman's vote was largely a move not of principle but a measure of his desire to continue to shovel Farm Bill pork to his congressional district, which Keep Food Legal research shows ranks in the top 15 percent in terms of subsidy dollars. (A call and email to Rep. Stutzman's office asking for comment for this column were not returned.)

If the split Katz discusses doesn't happen, then seemingly the easiest and most likely way forward would be for Congress to again extend the existing Farm Bill.

"I think there's a 95% chance that we just see an extension of current law, either for one or two years," says Andrew Moylan, outreach director and senior fellow with the libertarian R Street Institute, in an email to me. "Crafting a modified comprehensive Farm Bill that makes up the 27 additional votes it would need for passage is exceedingly unlikely, and attempts to compartmentalize subsidies or implement piecemeal reforms like repealing permanent law are unlikely to gain traction in the Senate."

A USA Today piece this week attempting to predict the way forward for the Farm Bill largely agrees with Moylan's assessment. But the article also notes that powerful interests in the Senate, including majority leader Harry Reid, have vowed to block any such extension.

"The remaining 5% [chance]," says Moylan, "would be some sort of 'back-door' bill (i.e. the House simply attaching the Senate-passed bill to some other must-pass package like a… debt ceiling increase) or attempt to take a House-passed shell and move immediately to conference with the Senate bill."

Whatever the outcome, you can bank on it being complex and costly. But it doesn't have to be.

Farming preceded farm subsidies. And it will outlive them with or without Congress's help.

The game has changed. It's time for Congress to play along.