Farm Subsidies

The Farm Bill Was Bad Policy, But That's Not Why the House Killed It

The corporate welfare in the farm bill is likely to end up on President Donald Trump's desk anyway, even after a surprising defeat in the House.


Roy Scott IKON Images/Newscom

This year's farm bill was, like many farm bills to come before it, chock full of business handouts carefully disguised as essential support for the hearty people of the heartland.

The bill died on the House floor Friday morning, undone by a surprising 198–213 vote—surprising because one of the unwritten rules of being in charge of a legislative majority is that you don't put anything up for a vote unless you know it is going to pass, which is apparently what House GOP leaders thought was going to happen. House Democrats and the Republican faction known as the House Freedom Caucus sank the farm bill by voting against it, but both groups did so for very different reasons and neither group was really objecting to the farm bill itself.

And the corporate welfare in the farm bill will likely end up on President Donald Trump's desk anyway.

The House's farm bill is being used as a bargaining chip in the ongoing debate over the so-called "Dreamers," individuals who were brought to the United States illegally by their parents when they were minors and have lived here ever since. The more conservative Republicans were withholding their support for the farm bill until leadership promised a vote on a comprehensive immigration package, The Washington Post reports.

With Democrats united in opposition to a Republican plan to impose work requirements on food stamp recipients—the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program accounts for about 80 percent of farm bill spending—factions like the Freedom Caucus had more leverage than usual.

Republican leaders were able to navigate such stark divisions within their own ranks last year to pass a health care bill (which ultimately failed in the Senate) and a major tax reform, despite unanimous Democratic opposition. But things have changed since then. Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wisc.) has announced his retirement, the midterms are creeping closer, and polls show that Republicans could lose their majority. Each of those factors creates more friction between the House GOP's factions as Ryan's would-be successors jockey for position. It makes any major legislation a harder sell.

All that inside baseball distracts from some very real problems with America's agriculture policies, such as the sugar subsidies that a group of conservative lawmakers targeted for deletion, unsuccessfully, in the lead-up to Friday's vote. As Reason's Christian Britschgi wrote earlier this week, the farm bill is emblematic of virtually everything that's wrong with Washington, and Republican control of both Congress and the White House did little to produce a more fiscally sound farm bill in 2018.

In the wake of the House defeat, a different farm bill being crafted in the Senate will now be the center of attention. That bill is not riven by the same in-fighting that sank the House version—it is being prepared in a bipartisan fashion by the Senate Agriculture Committee—but that means it is unlikely to include any significant reforms to the subsidies, handouts, and corporate welfare that legislators and lobbysists have cultivated through the years.