GOP leaders are to blame for Farm Bill failure

Much ink has been spilled over the Farm Bill that failed to pass the House of Representatives last Thursday. This measure, the bulk of which is SNAP (food stamp) funding, is taken up by Congress every five years and passed with limited opposition.

But that changed this year.

Sallie James, a policy analyst at the Cato Institute, noted on Friday that this “was the first time in 40 years (or possibly in history) that the House has failed to pass a farm bill.” She noted the blame game being played in the media, she adds, however, that she would like to “bestow Presidential Medals of Freedom on the culprits.”

Indeed. If one wants to point to one piece of legislation that embodies Washington’s incestious relationship with special interests, there is no better example than the Farm Bill.

There are a number of things wrong with the policies pushed in this legislation. For example, it subsidizes wealthy “farmers” — including Bruce Springsteen, Jon Bon Jovi, Ted Turnerand members of Congress — and artificially drives up prices by paying farmers not to yield any crops.

It also enacts policies that are protectionist in nature. The sugar industry probably serves as the best example. Through import restrictions, price supports and subsidies, U.S.-based sugar producers get a pretty sweet deal (no pun intended) that helps them avoid overseas competition at consumer and taxpayer expense.

But rather than present a bill with major reforms for the Farm Bill, Republicans leaders tried to make a bill large enough to pass with support from Democrats. In fact, the $940 billion Farm Bill that was presented on the floor last was 56% more expensive than the $604 billion law that was passed in 2008.

But despite record high food stamp funding, only 12% of House Democrats voted for the Farm Bill. The rest of the caucus walked away from the bill over $2 billion in perceived cuts to food stamp funding, which they failed to restore. Republican leaders immediately blamed Democrats for the bill’s failure in the House.

But that ignores the fact that Republican leadership could have implemented reforms to the Farm Bill that would have made it amenable to fiscal conservatives in the House. Republicans have a 234-seat majority in the chamber, rather than relying on Democrats to pass a nearly $1 trillion piece of legislation that merely preserves the status quo.

Sixty-two (62) Republicans voted against the measure, largely because they didn’t saw a bill that spent too much and didn’t change anything in terms of approach to argiculture policy. In total, 195 members voted for the bill, 23 votes shy of the 218 needed for passage. Even if one were to discount the 24 Democrats that voted for it, leadership likely could have won most of the Republicans who voted against it by including at least some of the major reforms that were offered by fiscal conservatives.

In the end, Republican leadership has no one to blame but themselves. They failed to put out a bold Farm Bill that enacted reforms and it spent far too much. Now they’ve put themselves into a position where they’ll either have to enact some major reforms to win back fiscal conservatives or go with politics as usual by increasing food stamp funding to attract Democrats in order to pass the bill.

But for now, fiscal conservatives are calling for debate about reform to agriculture policy, but whether Republican leadership has learned anything in their failure to pass the Farm Bill remains to be seen.

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