Governing from the middle or not
By Mark Edelman and Barry Flinchbaugh
© Copyright Agri-Pulse Communications, Inc.
ME. The mainstream media has been prognosticating the demise of the Food and Farm Bill Coalition during the past few weeks since the House of Representatives failed to pass a final version of the Federal Agriculture Reform and Risk Management Act of 2013 (FARRM). The margin was 234 opposed to 195 in favor. But before we conclude that all is lost, perhaps further analysis is appropriate. The 39 vote margin actually means that passage requires a minimum of 20 more votes to switch from “nay” to “yea.”
BF. Yes, the voting in the House was bi-partisan, but for different reasons. Voting “No” were 62 Republicans and 172 Democrats. Voting “Yes” were 171 Republicans and 24 Democrats. The surprise occurred when it came down to the final Southerland amendment to allow states to add work requirements to SNAP food stamp eligibility. It is reported that the Democrat count of 40 commitments for final farm bill passage fell by 16 votes after that Southerland amendment was accepted in a near party-line vote. To make matters worse, the media also reported more than 50 Republicans voted for adding the final amendment, and then turned around and voted against final passage of the farm bill. By definition, that is dysfunction in the form of a “poison pill” amendment.
ME. Iowa exercised bi-partisan cooperation as our two Republicans and two Democrats all voted in favor of the final Farm Bill passage. In fact all Republican House Members from Alabama, Illinois, Nebraska, Missouri, Mississippi, Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota, and Wyoming voted for final passage. But several Midwestern and Southern agricultural states had Republican Members voting “no.” Those included one Republican “No” vote each from Minnesota, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Kentucky, Indiana, Arkansas and Michigan; two from Colorado, Kansas, Louisiana, North Carolina, and Wisconsin; three from Ohio, four from South Carolina; and five from Texas and Georgia. That's at least 30 votes from rural states that could have made the difference by generating a 60 vote swing for passage.
BF. The bottom line was that the traditional farm coalition led by Ag Committee Chair Frank Lucas cultivated a bi-partisan block of votes consistent with governing from the middle. Shortly after the defeat, when asked about the merits of splitting the food title apart from the rest of the farm bill, Chairman Lucas responded that only the conservative interests are talking about that approach. The only amendment in which Majority Leader Eric Cantor spoke in favor of during floor debate was the Southerland Amendment. The Majority Leader's role along with the Whip is to maintain party discipline. Cantor recently announced support for splitting food and farm into two bills. However, American Farm Bureau and National Farmers Union aggressively oppose splitting the farm and food provisions of the farm bill along with 530 other food and farm coalition interests. They are saying it would likely result in the defeat of both measures. Reality is the urban vote can take care of food stamps without rural support, but the rural vote cannot provide a safety net for farmers without urban support.
ME. I disagree. The food safety-net will likely face larger cuts from the “Tea Partiers” without farm safety-net support, and vice versus. Options that have been suggested include introducing the Senate passed bill in the House, reintroducing the House Ag Committee bill without all of the Amendments for an up or down vote, splitting the food and farm titles into separate bills, and re-introducing the defeated Farm Bill minus the last few amendments. The last approach is perhaps the most practical. House leadership says they will bring the farm bill back up for debate in July.
BF. If the farm bill is split, it is not clear what bills would pass or fail. If either of the two bills pass the House, then a House-Senate Conference Committee could still insist that both food and farm titles be included in the Conference Report and sent back to both Houses for an up or down vote. If the House doesn't pass a food bill, a Conference Committee outcome could look more like the Senate passed food title with $4.5 billion in cuts over ten years. If a food title is not included in a Conference compromise, SNAP food stamp eligibility and spending could be maintained at current levels since they are entitlements. Thus, the House may lose an opportunity to weigh-in on larger cuts for SNAP. Democrats might be happy, but that is not what “Tea Partiers” intended.
ME. On the other hand, the House could also pass SNAP food stamp cuts over ten years that are greater than $20.5 billion amount in the recently defeated version of the farm bill. That would set up a harder line negotiating position between the Conference Committee conferees. Conservative interests like Americans for Prosperity and Heritage Action are pushing for larger cuts and reform-not just dividing the bill. So the outcome of splitting the bill is indeterminate and unpredictable. If dysfunction sets in and neither food nor farm bill passes the House, the easiest path forward may become another one-year extension--even though Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid says that is unacceptable.
BF. Now is the time for some leadership. Speaker Boehner is in position to exercise leadership after assessing his caucus members once they return from the July 4th break. He can either work with Minority Leader Pelosi or Majority Leader Cantor to impose leadership control and voting rules to facilitate a scenario for farm bill passage. External to Congress, the Farm Bill Coalition has a big role to play in securing more bi-partisan discipline if they want to deliver a stronger farm and food safety-net.
ME. I agree. The 532 Coalition interests can promise to publicize any “no” votes on final passage back home, as well as shift endorsements and contributions to opponents of those Members representing rural states who vote against final farm bill passage. The coalition could more aggressively counteract farm state media espousing separation of the food title from the farm bill. It is surprising the Des Moines Register which historically opined the left of center views of Lauren Soth, now adopts a position aligned with Americans for Prosperity founded by the Koch brothers--in deference to Iowa food and farm interests.
BF. The Coalition could also impose more discipline internally. Dairy interests could be “locked in a room” until they come out with a compromise plan that both support. The threat of leaving the dairy title out of the farm bill or allowing dairy to revert back to 1949 permanent law might be enough to get dairy interests to compromise. Should the whole food and farm safety net be put in jeopardy due to one segment of agriculture? Everyone in the food and farm coalition but dairy is likely to say, “NO.”
* Edelman is professor of Economics at Iowa State University and Flinchbaugh is emeritus professor of Agricultural Economics at Kansas State University.