The farm bill wasn’t supposed to fail.
In 2008, a mere 14 senators and 109 House members voted against overriding President George W. Bush’s veto of the farm bill. Sure, food-stamp spending — which compromises about 80 percent of the spending authorized by the bill — had significantly increased in recent years. But traditionally, the farm bill, which also subsidizes the agriculture industry, had been one area where Republicans, particularly in affected geographical areas, tended to forgo free-market advocacy.
This time was different.
“No one who even pretends to call themselves a conservative could vote for this bill,” says Heritage Foundation president and former senator Jim DeMint.
Since 2008, spending on food stamps has “doubled from 40 billion to 80 billion,” DeMint continues. “These minimal cuts they’re talking about are just slowing this dramatic rate of growth. And the food-stamp program is so out of control, the Ag department now is running ads encouraging people to get on food stamps.”
Characterizing claims that the farm bill included reforms as “just nonsense,” DeMint concluded that the food-stamps program “is no longer a safety net. It is a government spending program that is out of control.”
“There was no reform on either the food-stamps side or really the ag side,” agrees Club for Growth president Chris Chocola. “On the food-stamp side, you can do the math however you want, but it’s not a cut,” he says, talking about the bill’s total cost ($940 billion). “We think that you should block-grant food stamps to the states. Let them reform them. It’s just more of the same,” he concluded of the bill, “and we can’t afford the same.”
Ultimately, 62 Republicans voted against the bill, perhaps partially in response to the opposition of the bill by Heritage Action and Club for Growth. “While there was an effort to reform farm policy in this year’s farm bill, the final price tag was too expensive: $940 billion over the next ten years,” explains Representative Raul Labrador (R., Idaho) in a statement. “That is 56 percent more expensive than the previous farm bill.” Labrador was joined by several other conservative members, including Republican Study Committee chair Steve Scalise (R., La.), Representative Marlin Stutzman (R., Ind.), and Representative Tim Huelskamp (R., Kan.). According to a Club for Growth analysis, Huelskamp’s district would receive the second-biggest subsidy boost from the bill among Republican-held districts.
One Republican aide, who works for one of the members who voted against the bill, says that House conservatives have been concerned about the farm bill for months. “Leadership seemed to be comfortable bringing this bill to the floor and comfortable with all of the stimulus provisions still in it,” remarks the aide. “This wringing of hands because Democrats pulled out at the last second seems somewhat disingenuous, when you knew your conservative base wasn’t there.” Still, the aide does have praise for one leadership decision: “To their credit, they allowed open amendments” to the farm bill.
One conservative effort to make the bill more acceptable failed: Stutzman tried to separate the bill into two parts. “We need to split the farm bill so that way we can have an honest discussion about the food-stamp program and then also about the farm policies that are actually in the bill itself,” he told reporters at a Heritage briefing last week. “To make a distinction: Food-stamp policy is not farm policy. They are separate.” Stutzman filed an amendment that would separate the bill, but the Rules Committee declared that his request was out of order.
“I was pleasantly surprised and certainly proud of Representative Stutzman for taking the lead,” says DeMint,” and really proud of a lot of Americans who got engaged with the process calling congressmen and senators.”
“For decades the farm bill comes up and passes almost without debate, despite the fact that it’s taking us in the wrong direction,” he adds. “I think conservatives need to stick to their guns here and split this policy out. Let’s talk about the food-stamps program separately. Let’s talk about a free-market farm policy.”
Chocola was dismissive of the GOP leadership’s argument that, since Republicans controlled only one-half of one-third of the federal government, it was unrealistic to expect a bill that included aggressive reforms.
“Let’s clearly illustrate to the American people what the difference is between us and them and let voters decide what they want,” he says. “And so if you’re just going to build government a little slower than they do, what makes you think you’ll ever inspire people to believe in what Republicans say they believe?”
“If you’re going to lose, you might as well lose on principle,” Chocola adds. “That people can respect. “
— Katrina Trinko is an NRO reporter.