House Republican leaders suffered an embarrassing defeat yesterday when the farm bill was rejected by a combination of Democrats and conservative Republicans. The House also failed to pass a farm bill last year, so this is not a new problem. It’s particularly embarrassing for House Republicans, since the Democratic Senate has been able to pass a bipartisan farm bill both this year and last year. In the Senate, leadership must get a 60% supermajority to overcome a filibuster, and a single obstinate Senator can make things difficult by denying the unanimous consent needed to conduct routine business. In the House, a simple majority is enough to pass legislation, and leadership largely controls the floor process through the Rules Committee. So why can’t the House pass a farm bill?
The farm bill represents two key compromises. The first compromise is that it includes both direct subsidies for farmers and social welfare spending to reduce hunger. The second compromise is farm subsidies themselves – a collection of programs for various crops that are all included in the bill. There is something for everyone in the farm bill – both to love and to hate.
The largest portion of spending in the farm bill supports the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, also known as food stamps, and other programs to help low-income families afford food. Without these anti-hunger programs, there is no reason for legislators from urban areas to support farm subsidies for rural areas. Rural conservatives might not be enthusiastic about supporting food stamps, but the farm subsidies should be important enough to their constituents to justify support for the overall bill.
However, recently conservatives have rejected that tradeoff. The House Republican farm bill attempted to keep conservative support by making deep cuts to nutrition programs. Those cuts were deep enough to turn almost all Democrats against the bill, but not sufficient to attract enough Republican support to pass the bill.
Bit if the food stamp/farm subsidy tradeoff was the only issue, House Republicans could still pass a Farm Bill. Their bill would just make even deeper cuts to food stamps – or remove nutrition programs from the bill outright – in order to satisfy Tea Party conservatives and pass the bill with only Republican support. But that’s not the only issue.
The farm subsidies are themselves a compromise: a collection of programs for different crops, each of which has a separate base of support. The dairy program in the House bill was supported by farmers, but opposed by processors. Corn subsidies are important to farmers, but raise concern about wasteful spending and promoting an unhealthy diet. Cotton subsidies support thriving domestic production, but violate free trade agreements to the point that other U.S. industries face international retaliation. Every Member of Congress with farms in their district will have constituents who benefit from some of these programs, but other programs will only help farmers outside their district.
The new farm bill would fix some of the problems with these subsidies, but some conflicts cannot be resolved in a way that satisfies everyone. In the end, legislators will have to support a bill that includes some wasteful spending (in their opinion), in order to preserve the programs that matter to their constituents.
The problem is that the House Republican caucus is unable to compromise. Republican voters do not want compromise. But no Member of Congress will ever get to vote on a farm bill that has everything they support and nothing they oppose. The Republican caucus just has too many absolutist members to pass their own farm bill.
That doesn’t mean the House can’t pass a farm bill. It just means that Speaker Boehner will need to do the same thing he does every time the House has to pass difficult legislation: compromise with Democrats.