Farm Leaders Share Blame for House Debacle

Jerry Hagstrom
National Journal

In the cold light of morning Friday—or perhaps even in the heat of the afternoon Thursday—it was clear that the farm bill voted down in the House of Representatives had not been ready for the test of final passage.

Neither House leaders nor farm lobbyists had done the vote-counting that is necessary before a major piece of legislation goes to the House floor. And to be clear, the farm bill may not be glamorous, but it is major since it governs the policy for one of the most successful industries in the United States and sets the rules for the nation's most broadly used welfare program, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, which is better known as SNAP or food stamps.

So who is to blame? While Republican and Democratic leaders in Congress blame each other, Randy Russell, a former Reagan administration official who is one of the most highly respected agricultural lobbyists in Washington, said in an interview Friday that the failed vote "is a negative reflection on the agriculture community broadly defined."

"If as an industry we don't figure out how to deal together on issues and communicate more effectively to the broader public and members of Congress, we are going to suffer long-term consequences," Russell said. "Yesterday was not a good day for agriculture. It undermines our effectiveness."

Russell declined to get into specifics, but it appears that House members and farm-group leaders were so focused on specific amendments that they had not gotten around to figuring out how to get the 218 votes needed for final passage.

One lobbyist blamed the current Republican leadership for not keeping close track of how the process was going. In 2008, when current House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., was speaker, and House Agriculture Committee ranking member Collin Peterson, D-Minn., was chairman of the committee, "the whip operation was kind of a militaristic one," the lobbyist said.

That year, the votes for final passage were threatened by an amendment offered by Rep. Ron Kind, D-Wis., to restrict farm subsidies, and Pelosi was sympathetic to critics of the farm bill. But behind the scenes, the lobbyist added, "there was a very well-coordinated operation" to get the bill passed. This time, the lobbyist said, "it seemed like individual groups were doing their own thing and there was no reporting back to a central source on what was going on. It felt different from years past."

Another problem, the lobbyist said, was that the controversial amendments on dairy and food stamps came so close to the final vote that neither members nor lobbyists had any time to convince wavering members to vote for the final bill.

The food-stamp amendments seemed much more like insults to Democratic members and their constituents than attempts to save money. The amendment that would ban food stamps for convicted rapists and murderers raises the questions of how a local government would enforce that ban or whether Republicans really believed that a 15-year-old might think twice about committing rape or murder if he knew he would lose access to food stamps when he got to be 80.

But nothing equaled House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., who has avoided the farm bill like the plague, coming to the floor at the last minute to make a statement of support for the amendment of Rep. Steve Southerland, R-Fla., to impose additional work requirements on food-stamp beneficiaries.

Cantor portrayed the Southerland amendment as a pilot project that would allow the states to be as creative with food stamps as they were with welfare reform, but Bob Greenstein of the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities said in a blog post that food-stamp participants are already required to look for work and that the Southerland amendment "is not a normal work requirement." It would allow states to terminate benefits to households where adults—including parents with children as young as 1 year old and many people with disabilities—are not working or participating in a work or training program at least 20 hours a week and then allow the states to keep half the money from the terminated benefits and use it for whatever purpose they wanted, Greenstein noted.

When the bill went down, antihunger groups such as the Food Research Action Center and Feeding America, conservationists like the Environmental Working Group, and conservative groups such as Heritage Action and the American Enterprise Institute all claimed victory.

Kam Quarles, a former lobbyist at the United Fresh Produce Association and the National Council of Farmer Cooperatives who is now director of legislative affairs in the law firm of McDermott Will & Emery, noted that the bill would have cut $40 billion over 10 years. Quarles added, "Since that scorched-earth strategy works against their alleged interest in reform, it appears to be more about think-tank fundraising than actually accomplishing their stated goal."

Quarles has a point. Advocacy groups that depend on fundraising are never satisfied. The praise that members have gotten from both antihunger groups and conservative groups will make it harder to revive the bill. One lobbyist also noted that freshmen Republicans seem more responsive to the national conservative groups that threatened to score their votes on the farm bill than they did to their own constituents.

Congress will eventually have to pass a farm bill or another extension of the 2008 farm bill or face the issue, as they did last December, that an antiquated permanent law would raise the price of milk. There has been so much turnover in the House in recent years that there may be House members who don't know a lot about either farm policy or food stamps. It's time for farm leaders to reach out to a wider range of members and communicate that they need to take food and nutrition policy seriously—or face the consequences in both economic and political terms.

Contributing Editor Jerry Hagstrom is the founder and executive director of The Hagstrom Report, which may be found at