The House farm bill went down in flames on Thursday, with a final tally of 195 to 234. In a rebuke to party leadership, 62 Republicans voted against the bill.
The failure occurred even after Speaker John Boehner’s endorsement of the legislation and an impassioned plea by Oklahoma Rep. Frank Lucas, chairman House Agriculture Committee, just minutes before the final vote.
“I’d say this to all of you: ultimately this body has to do its work” said Lucas. “Ultimately we have to move a product that we can go to conference with. Ultimately we have to work out a consensus with the Senate so that we’ll have a final document we can all consider together. Hopefully, we’ll support it and the President will sign it into law.
“I have tried in good faith, working with (Minnesota Rep. Collin Peterson, ranking member) and each and every one of you in every facet of these issues to achieve that consensus. I have tried...
“But we’re at this critical moment. Whether you believe the bill has too much reform or not enough -- or you believe it cuts too much or doesn’t cut enough – we have to move this document forward to achieve a common goal: to meet the needs of our citizens. No matter what part of the country, no matter whether they produce or consume the food, we have to meet the common need in a responsible fashion.
“I plead to you, I implore you. ... Vote with me to move this forward. If you care about the consumers, the producers, the citizens of this country, move this bill forward.
“If it fails today, I can’t guarantee that you’ll see in this session of Congress another attempt. ... If you care about your folks, if you care about this institution, if you care about utilizing open order, vote with me.
“And if you don’t, when you leave here they’ll just say ‘it’s a dysfunctional body, a broken institution full of dysfunctional people.’ That’s not true! You know that’s not true.
“Cast your vote in a responsible fashion. That’s all I can ask.”
The post-mortem began immediately after the vote. Lucas’ plea fell on too many deaf ears for several reasons. First, too many Democrats opposed the bill over $20 billion in cuts to nutrition programs. Too many Republicans opposed the legislation over its $950 billion price tag.
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Among the controversial proposals passed largely by Republicans were provisions allowing states to drug-test SNAP recipients. An amendment offered by Florida Rep. Steve Southerland was approved just before the final vote and would have allowed states to require that SNAP recipients either be employed or looking for work.
Also passed was an amendment that would have capped subsidies to farms at $250,000.
Despite the controversial proposals, several Capitol Hill insiders told Farm Press that they had expected the bill to pass.
Blame game starts early
Shortly after the floor cleared, Majority Leader Eric Cantor and Democratic Whip Steny Hoyer got into a heated exchange after Cantor blamed Democrats for the farm bill’s failure.
“The problem is that 62 Republicans voted against the bill,” said an irritated Hoyer, who implied the “draconian” Southerland amendment was the last nail in the coffin for the Democrats who voted nay. “We turned a bipartisan bill into a partisan bill. ... I wasn’t going to bring up what happened today. But what happened is you turned a bipartisan bill – necessary for our farmers, necessary for our consumers, necessary for the people of America that many of us would have supported – into a partisan bill.
“Very frankly, 58 of the 62 Republicans that voted against your (farm) bill voted for the (Southerland) amendment, which made the bill even more egregious.”
Cantor, from Virginia, said the Southerland amendment “reflects what many of us believe is a successful formula to apply to a program that, in the eyes of the (Government Accounting Office), is in dire need of improvement because of error rates and waste and other things.
“In addition, it reflects our strong belief that able-bodied people should have the opportunity and should be a productive citizen. That’s what the amendment said.”
Cantor then stuck his thumb a bit deeper into Hoyer’s eye socket. “What we saw today was a Democratic leadership that insisted on undoing years and years of bipartisan work on an issue like the farm bill.”
The duo engaged in another 15 minutes of heated back-and-forth before Hoyer got the last word. “We will take no blame for the failure of the farm bill. None. Zero. As much as you try to say it, you can’t get away from the (fact) that 62 – 25 percent of your party – voted against the bill. That’s also why we didn’t bring it to the floor (in 2012) when it was also reported out (of the House Agriculture Committee) on a bipartisan fashion.”
Hoyer’s views were backed by a somber Peterson, who said, the bill failed because “House Republicans could not control the extreme right wing of their party. From day one I cautioned my colleagues that to pass a farm bill we would have to work together. Instead, the House adopted a partisan amendment process, playing political games with extreme policies that have no chance of becoming law.
“This flies in the face of nearly four years of bipartisan work done by the (House) Agriculture Committee. I’ll continue to do everything I can to get a farm bill passed but I have a hard time seeing where we go from here.”
Lucas, in a statement, took the high road. "On this day, on this vote, the House worked its will. I’m obviously disappointed, but the reforms in (the farm bill) -- $40 billion in deficit reduction, elimination of direct payments and the first reforms to SNAP since 1996 -- are so important that we must continue to pursue them. We are assessing all of our options, but I have no doubt that we will finish our work in the near future and provide the certainty that our farmers, ranchers, and rural constituents need.”
In the Senate, which passed its version of the farm bill 66 to 27 earlier this month, Michigan Sen. Debbie Stabenow, chairwoman of the Senate Agriculture Committee, said, “(Boehner) needs to work in a bipartisan way and present a bill that Democrats and Republicans can support. He could start by bringing the Senate bill to the floor for a vote.
"Maintaining the status quo means no reform, no deficit reduction, and further uncertainty that slows growth in our agriculture industry. This is totally unacceptable.”
Agriculture groups respond
The response of agriculture groups largely struck the same chord.
“The American Farm Bureau Federation is highly disappointed the House did not complete work on the 2013 farm bill,” said Bob Stallman, president of the American Farm Bureau Federation. “It was a balanced bill that would have provided much needed risk management tools and a viable economic safety net for America’s farmers and ranchers…
“A completed farm bill is much needed to provide farmers and ranchers certainty for the coming years and to allow the USDA to plan for an orderly implementation of the bill’s provisions.”
National Farmers Union president Roger Johnson said the House “has let down rural America. We are deeply disappointed that the House voted against the best interests of family farmers and rural America.”
“The National Corn Growers Association is extremely disappointed to see the House of Representatives fail to pass the 2013 farm bill,” said NCGA president Pam Johnson. “Up to the last minute our organization has actively and consistently called for passage of the legislation.”
Danny Murphy, American Soybean Association president and Mississippi farmer, said the failure “leaves the entire food and agriculture sector in the lurch. Once again, the nation’s soybean farmers and the 23 million Americans whose jobs depend on agriculture are left holding the bag.
“This bill would have reinforced the farm safety net, promoted our products in foreign markets, strengthened the fast-growing biodiesel industry, enhanced conservation programs; not to mention the stable, affordable and safe supply of food, feed, fiber and fuel that it would have ensured for all Americans; all while addressing our collective fiscal and budgetary obligations. Now, none of those benefits can be realized and a debilitating uncertainty extends from farmers to consumers as we all face the expiration of farm bill programs on Sept. 30.”