Conservatives' 'Overreach' on Food Stamps Spells Doom for the Farm Bill in the House

Jerry Hagstrom
National Journal

Until only a few minutes before the vote on final passage of the farm bill Thursday, it looked like the carefully crafted, bipartisan measure would make it through the House.

Then, shortly after the House voted 227-198 for an amendment sponsored by Rep. Steve Southerland, R-Fla., to give states the option of imposing work requirements on recipients of food stamps, a kind of sick buzz filled the chamber and House Agriculture Committee Chairman Frank Lucas, R-Okla., moved to the front of the room to speak.

“I implore you to put aside the latest e-mail or the latest flyer, comment, or rumor you have heard, assess the situation, look at the bill, and vote with me to move this forward,” Lucas pleaded. Noting that he could not assure the members that there would be another attempt to write a farm bill if this one failed, Lucas said, “If you care about your folks, this institution, vote with us. If you don’t and you leave here, they will say it is a broken institution with dysfunctional people. That is not true.”

The voting began and, even though House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., and Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., gathered around Lucas, no one came up with an idea that might change the result. After two years of negotiations, the House farm bill went down to defeat by a vote of 195-234. Sixty-two Republicans voted against it while only 24 Democrats voted for it.

The questions were: Why did it fail? Could anything have been done about it? And where will congressional farm and nutrition leaders go next?

In the lobby off the House chamber, House Agriculture Committee ranking member Collin Peterson, D-Minn., said he never had a hard count of Democrats who would vote for the bill because members kept telling him their votes depended on the amendments. The House Rules Committee had tried to tamp down “poison pill” amendments, such as the one that would have set national standards for the size of cages for egg-laying hens. But in Peterson’s mind, two successful amendments cost Democratic votes: the Southerland amendment on food stamps and a dairy amendment sponsored by Rep. Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., that provided a substitute to what Goodlatte called a supply management program that Peterson had written with help from the National Milk Producers Federation. The International Dairy Foods Association, the group that backed the Goodlatte amendment, “did a better job of lobbying” and convincing members that the price of milk might go up, Peterson said.

Peterson said he lost Democratic votes on final passage both from the dairy farm districts and from urban areas whose members opposed amendments requiring applicants for food stamps (otherwise known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program or SNAP) to be tested for drugs; to be rejected if they had ever been found guilty of felonies; and to be required to work for the first time. Those amendments particularly angered Democrats who were prepared to vote for a bill, even with a $20.5 billion cut in SNAP funding over 10 years, just to move it to conference. Those members, Peterson said, “went from being offended to being angry.”

The message, he said, was this: “If you overreach you get nothing.”

At one point, Lucas walked by and Peterson asked him if he wanted to speak to the media. “I’ve got to go heal up,” Lucas said and walked away. Lucas later issued a news release that he was disappointed but looking ahead. “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," Lucas said in the statement.

Peterson said he believes the bill “can be salvaged,” but he also noted that all farmers except the dairy producers would be happy with another extension of the 2008 farm bill. That would mean another round of the $5 billion direct payments that crop farmers get whether prices are high or low and no cuts to food stamps or restrictions on crop insurance. There has been talk that it might be difficult to pass another extension, but Peterson noted that Congress will have to take some action, or the permanent law from the 1930s and 1940s will go into effect. If Congress tries to pass anything but a simple extension, that quickly turns into a rewrite of the farm bill, he said.

Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa, a conservative who had voted for the bill, lingered nearby and told reporters that bringing the bill back to the floor is not impossible, “but I’m not optimistic.” King suggested that Congress should wait until after the Fourth of July break to reconsider the situation. In what may have been a signal to farmers to put pressure on Congress, King noted that “the guys in the field are wondering about next year.”

An hour later, in a park on the Senate side of Capitol Hill, it was evident how daunting it will be to come up with a bill that the House can approve. The International Dairy Foods Association happened to be holding its annual ice cream social and turned it into a victory celebration. The star guest was Goodlatte, who had won his amendment battle and then voted against the overall bill.

Goodlatte, a former House Agriculture Committee chairman, said the key to passing the farm bill may be to take it up in pieces. SNAP spending is too high, Goodlatte said, adding that he could not understand why liberals don’t believe that food stamps can be cut when there have been big cuts to defense spending.

IDFA President and CEO Connie Tipton said she had been delighted to see “a crushing vote (291-135) against supply management” that included 95 Democrats opposed. As to Peterson’s view that the amendment had cost Democratic votes, Tipton asked where those Democrats were on final passage.

Tipton said IDFA favored final passage because the bill with the Goodlatte amendment would improve dairy policy, but Jerry Slominski, IDFA’s senior vice president of legislative affairs and economic policy, said the group had not worked for final passage the way it had pushed the amendment. “Current law doesn’t hurt us that much,” Slominski said.

Correction An earlier version of this story misstated the House vote on the Goodlatte amendment. The vote was 291-135.