Why Did the Farm Bill Fail in the House?
June 26th, 2013
This week, we are doing a three-part blog series on the House’s failure to pass a farm bill last week. The first post covered the topic of farm program reform, this second post analyzes why the bill failed, and the third will discuss options for moving the bill forward.
Last week, the House of Representatives failed to pass the farm bill by a vote of 195-234. The vote came after one and a half days of debate and votes on a series of controversial amendments that failed to secure majority support for the bill. A mix of factors contributed to the bill’s failure, several of which serve as indicators of a changing political landscape around agricultural policy.
Bringing the Bill to the Floor with the Votes to Pass the Bill
The issue of getting enough votes to pass the farm bill through the House is not new. Last year, House Speaker Boehner (R-OH) and Majority Leader Cantor (R-VA) refused to bring the bill to the floor after repeated pleas from Agriculture Committee leadership and members, and from the broader agricultural community. GOP leadership said that it didn’t have the votes to pass the bill, and they wanted to avoid a messy floor fight ahead of the 2012 elections.
With the start of the new Congress this year, and amidst considerable uncertainty about the budget, the Agriculture Committees went back to the drawing board and started work on the 2013 version of the farm bill. The House and Senate Agriculture Committees handily passed versions of the bill, and the full Senate acted quickly thereafter to pass the bill with strong bipartisan support. Pressure was back on House GOP leadership to bring the bill to the floor.
Even before the Committee-passed bill came to the floor, there remained questions about whether there would be enough votes to pass the bill. Republicans knew they would need Democratic votes to pass the bill, but the far-reaching cuts to a major Democratic priority – Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, also known as food stamps) – in the Committee-passed bill made significant Democratic support unlikely. Tea Party Republicans, backed by many conservative organizations, opposed the bill because the cuts to SNAP and farm subsidies were not enough. To pass a bill, GOP and Agriculture Committee leadership needed to secure support from more moderate Republicans who would not demand greater SNAP cuts, and from rural or farm-state Democrats (whose ranks have shrunk significantly since the last farm bill) who could vote for a cut to SNAP if it got the bill moving to conference.
As they started their whip operation, Republicans estimated they could get approximately 170 votes, and Ranking Member Peterson (D-MN) estimated that he could get 40-50 Democratic votes. Support for the bill, however, seemed tenuous at best. In an effort to try to rally Republican votes for the bill, first Speaker Boehner and then later Majority Leader Cantor came out publicly in support of the bill in the days before debate began – a sure sign that support was wavering and needed to be rallied. Additionally, it has recently been reported that Republicans did not reach out to the Minority Whip, Rep. Hoyer (D-MD), to discuss the level of support among Democrats for the bill. Given that Democratic votes were needed to pass a bill, this seems like a gross oversight.
Despite the uncertainty, the floor debate began in earnest with a goal of reaching the final vote within two to three days.
The Big Issues Shaping the Debate
Even if GOP leadership had had the votes to pass the Committee-passed bill without changes, which appears unlikely, there were a number of controversial amendments debated and voted on that negatively affected support for the final bill.
The most divisive debates dealt with SNAP funding and eligibility. There were three SNAP amendments that staked out different positions on the issue. The first was an amendment by Rep. McGovern (D-MA) that served as the Democratic alternative to the bill’s $20.5 billion in SNAP cuts. With over 70 cosponsors, the amendment would have restored the entire cut to SNAP. It never had a chance of passing, and served more to capture the Democrat’s outrage at the size of the SNAP cut. The amendment failed by a vote of 188-234, with five Republicans voting for the amendment and eight Democrats voting against.
The second amendment was by Rep. Huelskamp (R-KS) and would have increased the cut to SNAP by $11 billion. The amendment failed by a vote of 175-250, with 57 Republicans voting against.
Much has been written on the impact of the passage of a third SNAP amendment – one by Rep. Southerland (R-FL) to toughen work requirements for SNAP recipients – in alienating Democrats from voting for the final passage. The amendment passed by a vote of 227-198, with one Democrat voting with Republicans in support. Coming at the end of heated and divisive debates about SNAP and the farm bill itself, the amendment added insult to the injury of the $20.5 billion in SNAP cuts. Strongly supported by Majority Leader Cantor, the Southerland amendment has been cited by Ranking Member Peterson as one of the main reasons that more Democrats did not vote for final passage.
In addition to these three SNAP recorded votes, the House floor also adopted by voice vote controversial amendments to allow states to drug test all SNAP recipients and to deny SNAP benefits to certain categories of former convicts.
Dairy and Sugar
The Committee-passed bill included a dairy supply management program that was a top priority for Ranking Member Peterson, but that Speaker Boehner vehemently opposed. With the Speaker’s backing, Rep. Goodlatte (R-VA) was successful in passing an amendment to strike the supply management program from the bill. The amendment passed by a vote of 291-135, dealing a blow to Ranking Member Peterson and Democratic members with significant dairy farm constituents.
Opponents of price supports for sugar failed by a narrow margin to pass an amendment by Rep. Pitts (R-PA) to eliminate the sugar program. Much like the fight over the dairy program, opponents of the sugar program are supporters of a free-market policy that benefits processors and major food companies. Apart from the details of the actual policies, both debates were painted as “Soviet-style” supply management vs. free-market capitalism. This rhetoric appealed more strongly — although not exclusively — to Republicans.
While a number of reform amendments were shut out of the floor debate, there were a couple of successful or nearly successful reform amendments that drew broad support. For an analysis of the reform amendments, read our previous post.
Key Amendments Shut Out
Just as important as the amendments considered during the floor debate were the ones left out. Over 220 amendments to the bill were filed, but the Rules Committee only allowed 103 amendments to be considered as part of the floor debate, many of them on very parochial or narrow issues. Left out of the debate were a number of sustainable agriculture amendments, many of which had bipartisan support and broad appeal. Shutting these amendments out of the process left less room to gain votes from lawmakers who care about reform, rural and economic development, and diverse sectors of American agriculture.
The Vote by the Numbers
In the final vote tally, only 171 Republicans and 24 Democrats voted for the bill – a far cry from the majority needed to pass the bill. Sixty-two Republicans voted against the bill, primarily because they were ideologically opposed to spending through the farm bill and wanted bigger cuts to SNAP and farm program spending. Democratic opposition stemmed primarily from the cuts to SNAP and the added drug testing and work requirement amendments, as well as from a failure to reform crop insurance and add improvements for rural development, organic agriculture, and local and regional food systems.
Among House Agriculture Committee members, the only Republican to vote against the bill was Rep. Goodlatte, despite his victory on removing the supply management feature of the dairy program. Of the 21 Committee Democrats, nine voted for the bill and 12 voted against. Compared with the vote to pass the bill out of Committee, one Republican and six Democrats changed their vote on the bill; 33 Committee members voted for final passage on the floor, and 13 voted against.
The Shifting Political Landscape
While there is still strong bipartisan support for a farm bill in the Senate, the same can no longer be said for the House after last week’s vote. In broad terms, the urban-rural coalition that has been key to passage of past farm bills has fallen apart. In that coalition, urban legislators would support the farm bill because of food stamp funding and rural legislators would support it for the farm subsidies. With the proposed $20.5 billion in SNAP cuts in the House bill, urban legislators were left in the dust on food stamps. GOP leadership thought they could make up the difference with Republican votes, but the cuts evidently weren’t deep enough for Tea Party Republicans.
Congressional politics has also changed since the last farm bill. Due to the ascendant right wing in the Republican party that votes against government programs and spending in general, GOP leadership needs Democratic support to pass most substantive bills through the House. But partisanship abounds, and the GOP is not rushing to work with Democrats to forge a compromise. The farm bill has now run into the much talked-about gridlock that defines federal policy-making these days.
In the comments and vote tallies of the House floor debate lies a path forward for getting a farm bill through the House. Given that most Tea Party Republicans will only vote for a bill that contains even deeper SNAP cuts, Republicans will have to turn to Democrats for support, and that means decreasing the cut to SNAP and dropping the radical policy changes. In addition, more support can be secured from Republicans and Democrats if the bill keeps the reforms made to commodities during the floor debate and makes substantive crop insurance reform. Finally, shutting out bipartisan amendments for rural economic development, local and regional food systems, organic agriculture, and fair competition ignores important priorities that have broad appeal and would help build a coalition in support of a 21st century farm bill.