On The Table: Farm bill politics depart from tradition

For decades, a coalition of rural and urban interests drove compromise over the farm bill, but in recent years partisan politics over food stamps have played a disruptive role. (Photo courtesy Flickr/Ron Cogswell)
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August 28, 2018 - 6:45am

Next week, leaders in Congress are getting together to try to find compromise in the 2018 Farm Bill. That used to be a foregone conclusion but, after decades of deal making, the politics of the bill have shifted toward dysfunction.


The farm bill is a mashup of policies, programs and groups that sometimes have competing interests. It involves farmers and environmentalists, big agribusinesses and social service groups. They’re in a relationship that seems to work, at least when the votes are there.

According to Northeastern University public policy professor Christopher Bosso, dozens of programs have been stitched onto the bill over the decades because it may not pass if it were just a crop insurance proposal aimed at farmers in the Midwest.

“Organics most recently, or farmers market support, the farm bill over time gets more complicated, larger, because you need to get the votes of a lot of people who don't farm or don't represent farming areas,” said Bosso, who wrote a book about the politics of the farm bill.

But there was a time when the farm bill was just what the name says. Bosso shared two stories about how that changed. First, in 1964, President Lyndon Johnson was trying to pass a national food stamp program, a proposal held over from the Kennedy administration.

Listen to the NET podcast, On The Table:

These are the stories of where our food comes from, the people who make it, and why one law could change everything. NET's Grant Gerlock serves up the Farm Bill in audio morsels that explain how all this will affect your life.

Episode 1: Meet the Farm Bill

Episode 2: SNAP Chat

Episode 3: Heart and Soil

Episode 4: Growing Organic


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Not everyone liked the idea.

“Rural conservatives in Congress fight against it, especially Southern Democrats. They see it as welfare,” Bosso said.

Johnson wanted to appeal to the growing number of suburban and urban voters with the food stamp program, but members of his own party stood in the way. According to Bosso, Johnson told the rural Democrats that if they didn’t pass food stamps, they wouldn’t get their cotton or wheat programs. Both programs passed.

“The message was quite clear,” Bosso said. “(If) you want your commodity programs, you'd better include nutrition programs in the farm bill. And so in 1973, the House agriculture committee formally includes the food stamp program in the farm bill, explicitly as a way to get the votes of urban and suburban Democrats in particular. And that's sort of the story ever since.”

It has been a story of urban and rural compromise, but today — fifty years after Johnson arranged that shotgun wedding between food stamps and farm programs — the relationship is strained.

In 2010, a wave of conservative Tea Party Republicans came into the House of Representatives with an interest in cutting federal spending. When the farm bill came to the House floor in 2013, they lined up behind a proposal to cut SNAP, the modern version of food stamps. It threw off the political balance of the bill.

“You had this group of Republicans who are going even farther than the House leadership wanted to go on restructuring SNAP, and the farm bill dies on the House floor,” Bosso said.

Bosso said the Senate eventually forced the House to back down on SNAP cuts, but it marked a departure from the usual deal making around the farm bill.

“They tend to be very dogmatic and are willing to take down the whole farm bill over these kinds of issues, where in the old days you could just cut deals and everybody would agree to go along with each other,” Bosso said. “That's what's different now.”

This year, Congress is writing another chapter in this story and so far the storyline is similar to what happened in 2013. The House and Senate are both controlled by Republicans, but they’re divided on SNAP.

The House version of the bill would double the number of people who have to work or go to job training in order to receive federal food assistance. But the Senate won’t go along with that because Democrats have lined up against the changes.

“While the Republicans control the Senate and they're the majority party, they don't have an overwhelming majority,” said Ellyn Ferguson who covers food and agriculture on Capitol Hill for CQ Roll Call.



The chair of the House Agriculture Committee, Republican Mike Conaway of Texas, continues to push the work proposal even though it cannot pass the Senate. Ferguson said he has the support of House leaders.

“He also has the president to some degree," Ferguson said. "On August 2nd, he tweeted that he really liked the work requirements in the House farm bill and that the final farm bill should have those requirements, but on the other hand there was no threat of veto in there.”

It’s not clear whether President Donald Trump is committed to stronger work requirements. Maybe he would use his veto to put pressure on the Senate, or maybe he thinks it’s more important to show voters he can get the farm bill done.

In the meantime, leaders in the House and Senate have a chance to come up with a compromise. The meeting of the farm bill conference committee on September 5 will be a test to see whether it will be possible to make a deal before the farm bill expires September 30.

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