Sunday, June 23, 2013

Farm Bill Follies

Farm Bill Follies

A friend said something that struck me as being particularly interesting.  He’s a Republican, although not hard right, and he was talking about Kirsten Gillibrand, New York’s junior Senator, who used to be his Congresswoman.  He was a little disappointed that Gillibrand was less conservative as a Senator than she had been in the House, but he said he understood.  A Senator had to represent the whole state, and downstate (New York City and suburbs) was surely more liberal than where he lived.

Obviously, whether you are moving left or right or center is in the eye of the beholder.  I see Gillibrand as a centrist, but my friend was picking up on something both seemingly obvious, and grossly out of date.  Statewide and national candidates don’t necessarily move towards the center anymore, and that means that the center is no longer the place for governing. 

Conventional wisdom is that you get the nomination by pledging absolute fealty to the base of your party.  After the obligatory pandering, you then tack to the middle to appeal to the broader electorate, particularly the prized independents.  If you win the general election you (sometimes) need accomplishments to stay there, so your own partisans understand that reverting to the doctrinaire places you (and your seat) in peril.

That is what we all thought, but that is no longer true.  A lot of this has to do with the rise of the conservative blogosphere and the Tea Party.  To get the Republican nomination in many states you have to satisfy the angry purists, and they can be completely ruthless.  Being an effective legislator is not necessarily seen as a plus; effective has been redefined as pushing a partisan agenda to the max.

Last week, I wrote about immigration, which has consumed much of the headlines.  But another fight, smaller, but perhaps even more illuminating, is what became of H.R. 1947, or, as it is more commonly known, the Farm Bill. 

The Farm Bill is always a perfect time for bipartisanship, because it is a Christmas tree of goodies:  subsidies, crop insurance, forest management, low interest rate loans for farms and Big-Ag, rural electrification funds, SNAP (food stamps), the National Sheep Industry Improvement Center (yes, that’s Section 12101) etc. etc.  Every five years there is some ritual grumbling, the usual paean to the “backbone” of the nation and some serious trading in pork-bellies (and all other types of pork.)  Then everyone holds a well-perfumed silk handkerchief to their nose, and “aye’s” it through.  Campaign contributions flow shortly thereafter.

Like everything else, this year’s Farm Bill was going to be tougher.  SNAP is by far and away the largest segment of the bill, and needless to say, the GOP isn’t in favor of it (helps the poor to eat, helps the grocers who sell to the poor stay in business.)  Compromises (including cuts to SNAP) were made in the House Agricultural Committee, and they voted out HR-1947 by a solidly bipartisan 36-10.  The Senate had already passed their (more generous) Bill and with the expected yes, the two would go to Conference, where some minor adjustments and compromises would be made, and then on to Mr. Obama for signature. 

HR-1947 runs to 620 pages and was carefully negotiated between the Chair of the Agriculture Committee, Frank Lucas (R-OK) and the ranking Democrat, Collin Peterson of Minnesota.  Peterson himself introduced it to the whole House.  Leaders in both parties privately said they expected passage with a healthy majority, even though most Democrats were opposed to the cuts in SNAP.

Done deal, right?  Not so fast.  Because, right after HR-1947 came out of committee, the GOP began running out the amendments, and while Peterson warned Lucas they could deep-six Democratic support, the GOP-controlled House voted in favor those amendments.  Eric Cantor himself stepped in to speak in favor of one (demonstrating, once again, how his integrity gyroscope needs some serious recalibrating.) Needless to say, these new amendments tilted the deal even further to the right, and the Democrats began to jump ship.  In the end, only 22 of a projected 40 Democrats voted for it, and HR-1947 died.  Cantor then found the nearest microphone to denounce Pelosi and a Cantor aide, Rory Cooper, added that the Democrats were “unable to govern.”

But wait, if you have been following closely, just exactly who runs the House?  That would be the GOP, right?  They have a 234 to 201 margin.   And they had the votes to pass the new amendments that the Democrats objected to. 234 plus 22 is 256, a winner? 234 plus 40 is a bigger winner.  But the final vote came out 234-195, against.  So, why didn’t the GOP have the votes to pass the whole bill?  

Because 62 GOP Congressmen voted no, including those who just voted yes on the Amendments that the Democrats objected to.  And those 62 weren’t just the odd bomb-throwing backbenchers.  No fewer than five Committee Chairman, Paul Ryan of Wisconsin (Budget), Jeb Hensarling (Texas, Financial Services), Ed Royce (California, Foreign Affairs), Bob Goodlatte (Virginia, Judiciary) and Jeff Miller (Florida, Veterans Affairs) also broke from Boehner and sent HR-1947 to a watery grave.  And, notwithstanding Cantor and his spokesman’s grandstanding, even if 40 Democrats had voted for it, it still would have lost. 

Bizarre, isn’t it?  The GOP wanted the bill, the Speaker gave his support, it was obviously unpalatable enough for the Democrats that most of them didn’t even like the version that came out of Committee, but that wasn’t enough.  Cantor and Co. had to extract just a little bit more pain, even when many of them had no intention of supporting HR-1947 even after the Amendments. 

To be clear, I am not even remotely suggesting that HR-1947 was a perfect piece of legislation. Spend fifteen minutes scanning it and you find plenty of eye-rollers, and maybe SNAP spending is too high.  But it’s the type of bill that has always been passed, because it largely reflects bipartisan wishes. 

Nor am I saying that the GOP is responsible for providing every last vote.  But it’s good politics to let the other side share a little.  Strict party line voting is a recipe for resentment and impermanent legislation.  Witness Obamacare and the 37 (to date) votes that have been taken to repeal it.  That is why you make a play for centrist and opposing party votes in the first place, and that is why Lucas and Peterson worked together.    

Given the result, they probably could have used more people like Gillibrand.  As a Congresswoman, she represented a rural and exurban district, and was on the House Agricultural Committee, so she would know a lot of the players.  As a Senator, she sits on the analogous Senate Committee.  As a Blue Dog, even one who has moved left a bit, she’s the perfect centrist who could have been a bridge-builder; knows the issues, not confrontational.   

But bridge building isn’t in vogue these days. Every vote seems to be an article of faith, or an opportunity to stick it in the other guy’s eye. What happened to HR-1947 is the new normal, and the new normal is really bad.

As a final aside, I should again note that Farm Bills come up for reauthorization every five years.  In 2008, the last time the Farm Bill came up, the Democrats controlled the House, it was more generous, and George Bush vetoed it.

Mr. Bush’s veto was overridden in the House in a vote that included 99 Republicans.  In the Senate (in case you were curious) the vote was 80-14.

But that was so…..2008?

There has to be a better way.  Kirsten, phone home.